There are roughly 60 education bills filed on topics ranging from mental health to sex education to another plan to restructure the Utah State Board of Education.
Here are five bills to watch:
A limit on the open carry of guns around schools
His legislation would create a 500-foot buffer around all public K-12 schools where individuals, even with permits, could not openly carry.
“Given all the shootings in schools — and other public places — let’s send a clear message that we don’t want you carrying weapons openly around schools,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said.
Utah law allows for the unlicensed open carry of a gun that is at least two actions away from being able to fire. There are no restrictions of that on school campuses, though in all places the firearm must be clearly visible.
Briscoe’s proposal is the only one published, so far, on the list of bills this session concerning school safety. Expect more.
Letting teachers use standardized tests to boost grades
This measure is expected to be among the most divisive education bills this session.
Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, is running a proposal that would allow teachers to use standardized test scores to improve student grades. Some parental rights groups already oppose this saying it would unfairly punish families who choose to opt their kids out of the test.
“We don’t need standardized testing,” said Oak Norton, cofounder of Utahns Against Common Core, which has led efforts to oppose previous attempts to require or incentivize testing. “It’s not to measure knowledge. Teachers can do that in the classroom without putting a kid through a standardized test.”
He pointed to some students having disadvantages and struggling with test anxiety. He said some see no personal stake in the voluntary tests.
That meant that schools with high numbers of students who skip the assessments — including many charter schools and wealthy districts, such as Park City — could see their performance ratings plummet and might lose funding.
“It’s creating a lot of mud in the data,” Winder said.
Right now, state law prohibits schools from encouraging participation on the year-end tests by providing a boost to grades. HB118 would amend the code so teachers could give credit to students who do well, but could not punish those who do poorly or opt-out.
How teachers can talk about contraception
A conservative lawmaker wants to clarify what teachers can say — and a little of what they can’t — about condoms, birth control pills and other forms of contraception during sex education classes.
“I think the current law leaves teachers in an uncomfortable gray area,” said Rep. Ray Ward of Bountiful.
HB71 would permit educators to talk with students about “the medical characteristics, effectiveness and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices.” It does not change, however, the overall requirement for teachers to promote abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
And while there would be detailed discussion of the use of contraceptive devices, there could be no advocacy for them.
It’s a milder proposal than in years past — where some lawmakers have tried to have only chastity taught in all public classrooms.
Parents will continue to be required to “opt in." And individual schools and districts could still choose to not provide instruction on the topic.
“This is clarifying language,” said Jodi Kaufman, the health and physical education specialist for the state Board of Education. “It’s not doing anything that we don’t already do in the classroom. But this gives some pretty clear definitions are far as Utah code.”
Giving low-performing schools more chances to avoid closure
It’s among the worst performing in the state. It has failed to improve in testing for the past three years. In fact, it has seen a further dip over that time. And when it closes in May, it will be the first a district has decided to shutter under the state’s turnaround law for schools that don’t meet education standards.
Her proposal, which is still being drafted, would change the requirements — perhaps loosen them — so that schools whose tests scores do not improve could apply for extensions and not be sanctioned. It would also add more specific deadlines that she feels are lacking or are vague.
“This law has holes in it that you could drive a dump truck through,” she said.
She was among 40 others who rallied against the decision to close Oquirrh Hills. Some said the school was targeted for its cultural makeup — which is largely minority students — and its economic status, with roughly 90 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
Granite School District responded Monday saying the law “gave impetus for us to close the school.”
“So frankly, we would like to see enhancements to school accountability procedures,” spokesman Ben Horsley said. “We look forward to working with Sen. Mayne to working on potential enhancements.”
A new college scholarship for low-income students
The most talked about higher education proposal, so far, would eliminate a popular merit-based scholarship and replace it with one calculated by financial need.
Under this bill, drafted by Republican Rep. Derrin Owens, Utah students from low-income families — which make less than $50,000 annually — would qualify for two years of free tuition at a public college, university or technical school in the state.
He’s calling it “the college access scholarship.” It would apply particularly to students who don’t get as much federal financial aid as they need to attend school full-time and could be supplemented by the state.
“I’d like to see these dollars go a lot further,” he said. “It will change their families for generations to come.”
Most of the students who receive the Regents’ Scholarship, he said, get other scholarships as well and are “pocketing a lot of money each semester” by stacking the offers. Owens, who was a first-generation college student and a former school counselor, believes low-income students don’t have enough opportunities to receive funding.
He has based his proposal on similar programs already offered at Salt Lake Community College and Weber State University. It would require $30 million in one-time state funding to make the transition and finish filling Regents’ Scholarships already awarded. After that, the ongoing funding would be the same as in years past at $15 million.
A few others to keep an eye on ...
The state board declined to comment much on the proposal Monday. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said every state has its own governance model for education, and in Utah she’s “proud to have a 15-member board” that’s elected.
The board, for its part, plans to support measures that prioritize early learning, personalize teaching and learning and reinforce the role of educators. Additionally, it will be asking for $30 million in ongoing funding and $65 million in one-time funding for building improvements focused on school safety and additional training.