Maybe it was the growing economy, lawmaker turnover or a focus on issues such as guns and prisons.
Regardless of the reason, this session was calmer than most for Utah schools, with few fights over funding and quick deaths for a number of controversial bills, including those on preschool, sex education and guns in the classroom.
Unlike in recent years, schools suffered no additional budget cuts. Rather, they got most of what education leaders asked for: a 2 percent boost in basic per pupil funding, from $2,842 to $2,899; nearly $50 million to fund 13,500 new students expected in Utah schools in the fall; and cash to continue programs such as dual language immersion, an elementary arts learning program and optional extended-day kindergarten.
State Superintendent Martell Menlove said he’d give the new education budget a B-plus or A-minus if he had to grade it. “We still have needs,” he said, “but the effort was great.”
He said education leaders would have also liked to see the restoration of state-funded teacher training days, which were cut during the recession. But several of their other priorities passed, including SB175, an $850,000 bill to start giving a college admissions test such as the ACT to all high school juniors during the school day for free.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association president, said she also would have liked to see teacher training days restored but otherwise called the session “exemplary in terms of the priorities that were set for funding public education.”
Lawmakers swelled with pride as they talked about the education budget in the last few days of the session.
“Since I’ve been in the Legislature, the first place that we spend money is education, and the last place that we cut is education,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
Despite months of build-up, a bill to create a state-funded preschool program for at-risk kids using money from private investors (to be paid back only if the program proved successful) fell flat during its first debate on the Senate floor. Opponents argued early in the session that young children belong in the home, not in government programs. During floor debate, opposing lawmakers focused mainly on technical arguments about the proposal, killing Republican Sen. Aaron Osmond’s SB71 with a vote of 18-11.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss’ HB389, which would have allowed parents to find out if their children’s teachers carried guns in the classroom, died early, with the House Rules Committee refusing to send it out for debate. (Though Moss, D-Holladay, succeeded in passing a separate bill, HB64, prohibiting sex offenders from running for school boards after one ran for the Granite School Board last year.)
A third controversial bill, SB39, which was to have created an online sex education program to help parents teach their children about the topic, passed the Senate but was laughed out of the House, failing there with a vote of 50-16.
In light of several high-profile cases of teen suicide in Utah, the Legislature passed at least three bills aimed at curbing the crisis. In several cases, teary-eyed parents pleaded in hearings for the bills to pass, talking about their lost children.
HB154, to require junior highs and high schools to implement suicide-prevention programs and HB298, asking districts to hold annual parent seminars on bullying, mental health and substance abuse, both passed, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. Rep. Gage Froerer’s HB134, to require schools to notify parents of suicide threats or bullying, also earned full passage.
At least one of the many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) bills muscled its way to passage in the session’s final days. A $10 million bill, HB139, to give money to schools and establish a board within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to identify best practices and coordinate statewide STEM efforts, passed late Wednesday night.
Lawmakers passed SB271, a bill that defines how school grading should work starting next school year. Advocates say it lays out a good way to hold schools accountable. Opponents worried it could lead to two grading systems because education leaders already have been working on a separate system since 2011.