Utah Education Association president frustrated by legislative session
Heidi Matthews, former Park City educator, says schools need more funding
February 21, 2017
A former Park City school librarian has a front-row seat to state lawmakers' efforts to address education issues this legislative session.
Heidi Matthews, who spent years working for the Park City School District, is in her first term as president of the Utah Education Association (UEA), the statewide union that advocates for teachers and education in Utah, giving her a prime position to examine how the legislative process impacts education.
But in an interview, Matthews said she's frustrated so far by what she sees as a lack of willingness among legislators to address the most important challenge facing educators in the state: a dearth of funding. The state is last in the country in per-pupil spending and is in the midst of a teacher shortage, but lawmakers have done little to indicate they intend to boost funding in a meaningful way, she said.
"I'm surprised there isn't more attention being paid to this crisis of funding in education," she said. "The house is on fire. It's not time to re-tile the kitchen. We have all these bills that are well intended but don't address the fundamental problem of what we're facing here in Utah, which is providing adequate funding for our students and schools."
That's why the UEA has thrown its support behind the Our Schools Now initiative, an effort from several of the state's business leaders to get a measure on the ballot in 2018 that would increase taxes to fund education. If passed, the measure would raise state income taxes seven-eighths of one percent — a 17.5 percent increase to the current 5 percent rate — to generate $750 million annually in new revenue for education.
Matthews said such a windfall would allow for the types of pay increases that would keep new teachers in the profession — currently, nearly 50 percent of teachers leave within five years — and would fund programs that would make a measurable difference in classrooms.
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Many Republicans in the Legislature have spoken out strongly against Our Schools Now, such as Rep. Tim Quinn — whose district covers Park City — who said levying such a large tax increase would harm taxpayers and would not grow revenues in the long run. Matthews, though, said the Legislature's current plan to increase education spending by raising the weighted pupil unit (WPU) by 3 percent, equaling $90 million, doesn't scratch the surface of what schools need.
She said district superintendents around the state have been adamant that a 2.5 percent increase to the WPU — the mechanism through which the state funds public education — is the minimum needed just to keep schools operating.
"When you talk about 3 percent on the WPU, that only gives a half of a percent to really come into play to address anything else," she said. "If we had a 5 percent increase on the WPU that only went to salaries, it would take us five years to get to the national average. And by then we wouldn't be at the national average."
Matthews is also skeptical of efforts to change how current education monies are allotted. For instance, S.B. 80, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, a Republican from Jordan, would take some money that would normally go to more well-off districts, such as the Park City School District, and give it to poorer school systems that don't have a prosperous tax base.
In Matthews' view, though, no district in Utah is funded well enough to spare any money from the state. Instead of cutting the pie differently, she said, lawmakers should increase the size of the pie.
"Simply to take from Park City to redistribute across the state doesn't address the fundamental problem of there not being enough resources going into our schools," she said.
One legislative effort that has drawn the UEA's support is overhauling the controversial school grading system that raises the ire of many parents, teachers and administrators each fall. H.B. 241, from Rep. Marie Poulson, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, would do away with the current grading system, which is based on SAGE test scores, and calls instead for evaluating schools on a number of factors, ranging from graduation rate to the amount of advanced programs offered.
"It's all of these different aspects," Matthews said, "instead of a grade that is based on a test score that happened one day."