Park City teachers stage demonstrations to advocate for increased state education funding
Unity was the watchword for organizers of Wednesday’s teacher “walk-ins” at Park City School District elementary schools, a call for one message at a time when Utah legislators are debating funding levels for the 2020-2021 state budget.
Teachers donned “red for ed” clothes, made posters and gathered outside schools before classes began to advocate for increased state education spending.
“We have to be united in order to really secure the funding for public education we know our students need,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association and former Treasure Mountain Junior High School librarian.
They say that message is that school districts need more funding from the state to attract and retain teachers, provide programming necessary for student success and sustain a functioning education system so that families looking to relocate don’t look elsewhere.
Matthews said it no longer adds up for college students weighing careers to become teachers, leading to what she called a “teacher exodus.”
Utah continues to rank last in per-pupil spending, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, behind states like Oklahoma, Idaho and Mississippi. According to 2017 data, the state paid $7,179 per pupil, which is $2,700 less than Colorado, $5,000 less than California and a whopping $16,000 less than the largest spender, New York.
“We’ve done so well with so little for such a long time it’s catching up to us and we are losing, losing potentially great educators before they even step foot in our classrooms,” Matthews said.
Park City Board of Education President Andrew Caplan joined Matthews at the walk-in at Parley’s Park Elementary School. He said the board’s goal is to be able to pay high enough salaries that teachers would be able to live and work in the community. The district pays teachers the highest wages in the state — a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes $50,700 — but Caplan said even that is not enough to attract enough qualified educators.
“Education is no longer a profession that pays a livable wage,” Caplan said. “When you have cost-of-living increase dramatically, it’s going to be a problem going forward.”
Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea also visited one of the walk-ins. In a statement, she said the walk-ins support all education staffers who help students achieve their potential.
“We support our Utah legislators efforts to provide increased funding for public education,” Gildea wrote.
Caplan said that teacher tenure and other factors mean that the teacher shortage will worsen with time as fewer new teachers fill the positions vacated when staff members retire. And that has the potential to affect the entire state.
“If the elected leadership in our state wants to have a future for its citizens and make this a place that continues to attract businesses and … the country’ best and brightest, and entrepreneurs, big corporates, people who come here and generate revenue through taxes, then they need to invest in education,” Caplan said. “Because eventually people are going to say, ‘You know what, I’m not coming to Utah, the school’s here aren’t good enough.’ And that would be a shame.”
As measured by ACT scores and national tests, Utah students perform much better than their last-place standing in state funding.
Trailside Elementary first-grade teacher Amanda Lawing said the discrepancy comes down to the personal sacrifices teachers make for their students. Lawing is also a co-president of the Park City Education Association, the union that represents teachers in the district.
“Teachers are paying for basic supplies,” Lawing said. “I think you have a lot of teachers who are willing to spend their own money on their classrooms, they’re willing to work extra hours without being paid. Because they want the students to be successful, they are willing to put their students’ needs in front of their own needs.”
State funding for education is still in flux, and it will likely be one of the last things decided by the Legislature, according to Park City School District Administrator Todd Hauber.
An education appropriations subcommittee recommended a 4% increase to the weighted pupil unit, the mechanism the state uses to fund public education; the Utah Education Association wants a 6% jump, in addition to an outlay of more than $600 million for teacher compensation and other perks.
The Speaker of the House, Rep. Brad Wilson, released a statement on the issue touting increased education spending in recent years.
“When legislators say education is a top budget priority, we mean it — and the facts show that commitment,” the statement reads. The statement also condemns a Salt Lake City teacher walk-out that was scheduled for Friday.
The increased funding includes a $1 billion jump in annual public education funding over the last five years, and a 14% jump in the weighted pupil unit over the same time span.
Matthews said the increased spending barely gets education funding back to pre-recession levels. And for Caplan, the moves haven’t been enough.
“It’s absurd for a legislator to say that, oh, we should be happy with what we have because they’ve done so much for us. We’re last in the country. That’s a fact. There’s no denying it, that’s a fact,” he said. “If that’s going to change then the state Legislature has to fund education and make education a priority.”
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Park City officials are expected to present information about upcoming work on the Treasure acreage designed to guard against a wildfire, as well as a series of other City Hall projects and programs, at an open house that is scheduled next week.