The Utah Legislature will get a flood of new members next year, the result of retirements and electoral defeats, and public school advocates say the turnover and changes will be good for Utah schoolchildren and colleges and universities.
“With a lot of combinations of events, we think there’s a pretty good group of legislators who are going to be at the table for the [education] discussion,” said Nolan Karras, a former Utah House speaker and co-chairman of the group Education First, a business-backed political action committee (PAC).
Not surprisingly, others view the direction the Legislature may be headed differently.
Judy Clark, executive director of the group Parents For Choice in Education, which has pushed for more choice and digital learning options, said the Legislature is losing a number of reliable education reformers.
“I think we see that there were some strong advocates for students and education who lost in the primaries,” Clark said, pointing to Reps. Brad Daw, David Butterfield and Bill Wright, who lost their June Republican primaries.
Kory Holdaway, director of legislative affairs for the Utah Education Association, said the teacher’s organization was encouraged by the results of the primary — in which 12 of the 14 legislative candidates the group endorsed were victorious — and is wrapping up its endorsements for the general election.
“We think the people that were elected were people who are going to be a little more receptive to what their constituents are wanting,” Holdaway said. “I think we’re going to see some good things happening with the group that is being elected.”
The turnover in the next session of the Legislature will be up significantly from recent years, with at least 15 new House members and as many as five new senators — depending on whether Democratic Sen. Ben McAdams wins the Salt Lake County mayor’s race — joining the body.
During the past several years, the clash between education advocates and reformers has been one of the most divisive in Utah’s Capitol.
Karras said Education First is hoping to change the atmosphere, which has become too polarized and contentious, more so in debates over public education than higher education.
“We’re not looking for people who will just write a blank check for whatever education wants, but we need to have a debate about how we as a society move forward and compete.
“So we’re looking for open-minded people who have good will and are perhaps not as doctrinaire as we have seen in the past,” Karras said.
Education First endorsed a number of candidates who prevailed in their June primaries, including Rep. Evan Vickers, who knocked off fellow Republican Sen. Casey Anderson, John Westwood, who won the primary to replace Vickers and Rep. Steve Handy, who staved off a challenge for his Davis County seat.
The PAC put about $20,000 into the primary elections and plans to remain active through the November election.
Karras said the outcome of the June primaries proves that Utah voters support reasonable candidates who want to bolster education.
“I do believe there was some of what I’d call ultra-conservatives who had maybe too much sway in terms of influence, and we need to try to offset some of that to have this debate” on education funding and innovation, Karras said. “In my opinion, we’ve got to reform education and be innovative and at the same time we need to properly fund it.”
But Clark said Education First and others have simply advocated for throwing more money at schools, which is the wrong way to go.
“They’re constantly preaching for status-quo solutions, and when we get caught up in ridiculous arguments like more money, that shows that the organization is not focused on finding solutions rather than sending out rhetoric,” Clark said. “That’s all they care about.”