Educators say less was more at the 2018 Utah Legislature

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, as seen on the House floor Wednesday, March 7, 2018. A bill sponsored by McCay to do away with the Utah Board of Education and replace it with members appointed by the governor, went down to defeat on the last night of the Utah Legislature Thursday.

When the Utah Legislature began its annual 45-day session in January, the usual torrent of education-related bills fell to a trickle.

Lawmakers chose to begin with a clean-up of reams of legal references contained in Utah’s education statutes. It meant days of tedious procedural work that delayed debate of new laws and policy.

But that throttling effect lingered well after the rewriting was completed, leaving a compressed schedule for broader discussions of a handful of new schools-related proposals.

“Because there have been fewer bills, I think we’ve been able to have those deeper, more focused conversations,” said Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of public instruction. “In the end that’s really going to benefit our students.”

That shift in focus extended to budget talks, which were held up by negotiations with organizers of the Our Schools Now ballot initiative as lawmakers crafted a multi-pronged compromise to direct hundreds of millions of new dollars to public schools in coming years.

The deal with Our Schools Now was a looming question mark until the final hours of the session Thursday, which in part led to lawmakers approving an education budget that left details on large swaths of funding unresolved at press time.

This year’s increase to per-student spending is lower than anticipated — roughly 3 percent compared to the state school board’s request of 5.5 percent.

But Dickson said the additional unrestricted funding in the budget boosts those totals, while specific projects such as elementary school counselors and special education salary incentives also were included as budget line-items.

“At the end of the day we’re going to have more money,” Dickson said. “Especially some targeted money to meet local needs in the areas of mental health and serving students who are the most at-risk.”

Beyond school spending, lawmakers debated and approved new changes to sexual education, broadening approved content in Utah’s abstinence-based curriculum to include lessons on consent and the dangers of pornography.

And a significant amount of discussion was devoted to how Utah’s education system is governed, with lawmakers changing the approval process of new charter schools, and requiring Senate confirmation for members of the appointed State Charter School Board.

But the biggest governance proposal, a resolution to abolish — later changed to appoint — the Utah Board of Education was defeated in spectacular fashion in the House on a vote of 54-18 against.

Debate of that resolution, including its swift approval by the Senate in the Legislature’s final week, sent ripples through the education community and led to lobbying by unconventional alliances of supporters and opponents.

Terry Shoemaker, associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association, said ongoing legal and legislative changes to the structure of the state school board have been disruptive to the Utah’s school system.

“Frankly, whoever our constitutional partner would be, we want to have a good relationship moving forward,” Shoemaker said. “If there ever was a policy discussion that needs to come to some careful conclusion, it would be this one.”

While some school board members supported the resolution, a majority of the board voted to to oppose it.

Dickson, who some speculated could have been the governor’s appointed superintendent in replacing the school board, said a variety of voices is preferable to an individual authority.

“I don’t think flying solo is a very a good model of governance,” Dickson said. “It’s always good to have a board of various people who can add to the perspective of what’s best for our students.”

By far the session’s biggest education-related vote came in a pair of bills that struck a compromise with Our Schools Now, the business community-backed ballot initiative to increase sales and income taxes by a combined $700 million to fund education.

HB293 and HJR20 enact a series of tax reforms, including a five-year freeze on a statewide property tax rate, and put the question of a 10-cent gas tax hike on the November ballot.

Taken together — if the gas tax is approved by voters — the bills will generate roughly $375 million in new annual education funding once fully in place. That figure comes on top of natural growth in Utah’s income tax revenue, which the Utah Constitution requires be spent on schools.

In a written statement, Our Schools Now co-chairs Gail Miller, Scott Anderson and Ron Jibson declared 2018 “the year of education in Utah.”

“The actions of this legislature can lead to an $845 increase in per-pupil spending,” they wrote. “It’s gratifying that we can come together with the Governor and the Legislature to take such a major step to improve outcomes for our students. We look forward to reaching out to voters across the state for the benefit of our children, and our state, in support of the November ballot proposal.”

Money generated by the OSN compromise legislation will also benefit Utah higher education. And lawmakers approved a number of budget items aimed at colleges and universities.

Those include $18 million to address the growth in enrollment in higher education, and to expand capacity in programs deemed to be critical to Utah’s workforce needs. Another $1.6 million is included to bring the salaries and benefits of Utah’s college and university employees in line with other state employees, and $3.5 million to fund growth in higher education scholarships.

But lawmakers took the first steps toward eliminating the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative, or USTAR, a program housed at the University of Utah and Utah State University to convert academic research to private, entrepreneurial endeavors.