As Utah voters cast their ballots for Governor this year, one issue in particular will be on their minds regardless of their party affiliation and that is education. Incumbent Gary Herbert is proud of how much new money he’s put into the state’s education system. But large class sizes and low teacher salaries persist in Utah. Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Mike Weinholtz says he can change that.
At the Utah Education Association’s annual convention in Sandy, UEA Vice President Roger Donohoe welcomed Governor Gary Herbert to the stage.
“His unwavering focus on economic development has led Utah’s recovery from a recession to a position of national economic prominence,” Donohoe said. “And last June, Forbes magazine and others ranked Utah’s economy number one in the United States.”.
Donohoe says he looks forward to the day Utah has the number one education system under Herbert’s leadership. Following the warm introduction and applause Herbert charms the audience with a story about his fourth-grade teacher, who instilled in him a love of reading.
“I have a very extensive library,” Herbert said. “I read every day. And certainly I’m a better governor because I can read. Number one and I enjoy to read, number two. I promise you that’s a true statement.”
Over the past five years, the Utah Legislature has injected $1.8 billion in new money into public education. Graduation rates have increased. ACT and NAEP scores are making modest gains and reading scores for Utah’s Hispanic fourth graders have spiked significantly. This all, despite Utah having the lowest spending per student in the nation and some of the largest classrooms. Herbert acknowledged the challenges Utah schools face.
“We have to generate an additional $70 million per year just to break even and keep classroom sizes where they’re at,” Herbert said.
Sara Nandell is a behavior specialist in the Weber School District.
“I am a democrat who supports Governor Herbert because he again takes the time to listens to us,” Nandell said.
Nandell is also a member of the UEA political action committee. She believes in Herbert’s education plan.
“He has a favorite teacher and he wants to continue that for his generation, his grandkids and generations to come. And he wants to give educators more money,” Nandell said. “Not that we go into our profession to be rich, but we need money to support our students.”
“It’s a little disappointing to me in the sense that I think we could do so much better,” said Utah House Minority Leader Brian King. He has endorsed Democrat Mike Weinholtz for Governor.
“It’s interesting to hear every Republican governor that we’ve had for literally 30 years say, I want to be the education governor,” King said. “I remember Governor Levitt saying that. I remember Governor Olene Walker saying that. I remember Governor Huntsman saying that. The reality is that none of them were willing to do what was necessary to really put the resources into public education that would have made a big difference.”
King said he believes Mike Weinholtz has the courage and political will to make that kind of investment.
“I want to make sure that the public education system in the state of Utah values teachers, values teacher development, lowers class size and most importantly perhaps in some ways, aims it’s resources at those who are in the most critical need,” King said.
At Foxboro Elementary in North Salt Lake, Kindergarten teacher Jolyn Metro has 54 students this year in her two French immersion classes. She has each of her students for roughly two hours each day. She has to cover math, social studies and science, on top of teaching them to read. She said it’s overwhelming.
“I can’t give them the necessary one-on-one attention that they need in order to provide them with the education that they deserve,” Metro said.
Metro is also frustrated with her low salary. She rents an apartment outside the district in a neighborhood she can afford. And she said some of her colleagues, especially those with kids, are barely getting by.
“I always question, well do I want to stay in this profession if I’m not getting paid what I feel like I deserve and what I feel like other teachers deserve, is it worth sticking around for?” Metro said. “If we’re not willing to pay the teachers a salary that reflects all of the work that they put in, how are we showing them that we want them to stay?”
Mike Weinholtz said teachers across the state are overwhelmed and under paid and that is unacceptable.
“We have a culture here in Utah where our teachers are not respected and in fact they’re made the scapegoats for things when they go wrong, rather than the legislators looking inward and saying we’re underfunding education here in Utah,” Weinholtz said.
Weinholtz said he would start by truly prioritizing education in the state budget, more like the state was doing in the 1990’s when Utah was middle-of-the pack in terms of per student spending, rather than dead last.
“Let’s get back to those levels when we were designating 30 percent of our budget to education. If that’s not enough, than I would propose a slight tax increase,” he said.
Specifically, Weinholtz supports a tax hike of less than 1 percent on all Utahns and an additional 1 percent increase on the state’s highest earners. Polls show, roughly 70 percent of Utahns support such a tax increase if it goes to education. Weinholtz said if he can’t convince the legislature as governor, he would support a proposal to place a ballot question before voters asking if they would be willing to increase the income tax rate.
“If it takes a ballot initiative for the legislature to hear the voices of the people of Utah and the will of the people of Utah than I would support it,” Weinholtz said.
Weinholtz and Herbert have battled it out over a number of issues during the election cycle including public lands, healthcare and the economy. But Utahns have always ranked K-12 education as one of their top three concerns, according to annual reports form the non-profit research group Utah Foundation. Several polls put Weinholtz behind Herbert by double digits. The Democrat hopes his education proposals can help close the gap between him and a very popular incumbent.