Utah students least funded in the nation; Salt Lake City march preempts final budget recommendations

Salt Lake Education Association march for students at the Utah Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 28, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Amy Barton, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY — As finalizations for student funding edge nearer, approximately 2,000 people, many dressed in red shirts emblazoned with the slogan #RedForEd, marched through downtown in Salt Lake City on Friday to urge lawmakers to increase funding for students.

Stock photo, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Unsplash, St. George News

According to a report from Public School Review, Utah ranks last in regards to average funding per child, at $6,122 per student. The state with the highest average spending per student is New York, at $32,967 per student.

Though there are many differing opinions when it comes to how much money should go toward public education, according to a 2018 report by the National Education Association, the evidence is clear: money matters…a lot.

Mike Harmon, vice president of the Salt Lake Education Association, told St. George News that the organization for the march began several months back and was prompted by the current Utah legislative session.

This year’s budget proposal, designated as HB 8 in the 2020 Utah Legislature, is sponsored in the House by Rep. Jeffrey Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, and in the Senate by Southern Utah Rep. Don Ipson. The Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee has recommended a 4% boost in weighted pupil unit for public education funding, compared to the 6% recommended by the Utah State Board of Education. The weighted pupil unit is a basic building block in Utah for funding education.

Salt Lake Education Association march for students at the Utah Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 28, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Amy Barton, St. George News

The final recommended percentage has yet to be finalized but is set to be announced by the end of the week. In the meantime, many people in the state are saying that 4% just isn’t enough.

“Members are just concerned about the lack of adequate funding for education,” Harmon said. “When the Legislature is looking at not funding it adequately, we felt like we needed to take action.”

The main disconnect between educators and lawmakers, Harmon said, is the lack of understanding on the lawmaker’s side of what it really takes to provide support for students.

“When we look at the mental health needs of students and counseling support – those kinds of things – it’s expensive to do, but it’s so important and necessary to provide those supports for our students,” he said. “And I don’t think they recognize what really goes into funding a school day and really support students.”

The response to the march has been mixed, Harmon said. There have been some lawmakers who have been upset, as they feel that they are providing sufficient funding.

Part of the issue, he added, has to do with the tax restructuring not happening.

“There’s money that could be budgeted toward education,” he said, “but they’re reluctant to do that.”

Utah Education Association President Heidi Mathews addresses the crowd at the Utah Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 28, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Amy Barton, St. George News

Chelsie Acosta, who teaches 7th and 8th grade at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City, told St. George News that she spoke at the rally about how she recently lost her mother, who was a veteran elementary school teacher for 47 years. Between her mother’s experience and Acosta’s 14 years, she said she has witnessed a drastic change and decline of resources to classrooms and students.

In addition to a decline in resources, class size has also gone from 20-25 students per class to 30-35 students per class, but the funding hasn’t changed.

Being a teacher in the West Valley, Acosta said she teaches students who have experienced a particular heightened amount of trauma. The percentage of children who have been through major trauma compounds the insufficient funding.

Education needs are different today compared to the days when students would come in, open a book and go home, she added.

Teaching students isn’t the first priority as a school, she said. Based on the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, unless the basic needs of a child are met – such as food, clothing, shelter and a sense of safety and well-being –  achieving success in education will prove much more challenging.

Because there are students living in shelters or even cars, Acosta said students “need resources and help and support, and that looks like nutrition, counseling, medical support, trauma-informed practices, restorative justice practices. … It’s just so much more complex before the child can even learn.”

Children coming from more volatile home situations hits home for Washington County School District students, said Amy Mitchell, the executive director for Title 1 elementary schools.

Steven Dunham, the communication director for Washington County School District, said that getting 4% is the minimum needed to accomplish what the district would like and to maintain current operations.

“If we could get more than that, then we could put some additional funding toward things like salaries and additional programs and opportunities,” Dunham said. “We have our fingers crossed that it will be 5% or maybe a little bit better, but we won’t know until the end of this week.”

Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson said even that extra 1% of funding would have a huge impact.

“We can attract better teachers. We can do additional professional development and training for our teachers. We can hire more nurses and mental health counselors,” he said. “We can provide more responsive services for students.”

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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