From guns to contraceptives to standardized tests: here are five education bills to watch during Utah’s legislative session

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson speaks at a news conference at the Capitol as the Utah State Board of Education presented its legislative priorities on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

After one of the most horrific school shootings in the nation’s history in Florida. Amid strikes for better pay for educators in California and Virginia. While teacher shortages hit a new low here and in states across the country. And when class sizes nearly everywhere continue to grow.

For the Utah Legislature, which started Monday, the stage is set by those issues.

The governor has already declared education his No. 1 priority. The House speaker noted it in his opening day speech, nodding toward a focus on school safety. And the Senate president said Monday there needs to be a better system where students can succeed both academically and socially.

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

After a shooting at a Florida high school last year reignited the national outcry for gun restrictions, state Rep. Joel Briscoe is proposing a bill he believes would make schools in Utah “psychologically more secure.”

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

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cristian Bonilla works during Dee Ann Arriola's 8th grade math class at Bryant Middle School. Utah's eighth-graders are on pace with their peers nationally in math and reading, according to new results from National Assessment of Education Progress tests.

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.

The number of parents excusing their children from year-end exams has steadily increased. In 2017, for instance, 5.9 percent of students statewide opted out. That put the state below the required 95 percent minimum participation rate required by the federal government, and it had to count students who opted-out as failing.

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.

Ward says he’s trying to define the line for teachers between “providing medical information and advocating.” Currently, he says, there’s confusion that causes some to skip the unit on contraception altogether or to give a particularly superficial overview to avoid overstepping.

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.”

The state Board of Education is currently reviewing new health standards that would include more information on contraceptives, as well. This proposal does not impact that process.

Giving low-performing schools more chances to avoid closure

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oquirrh Hills Elementary School in Kearns is being forced to close down after failing to improve its test scores. The school is pictured on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

Early this month, board members for Granite School District voted to shut down Oquirrh Hills Elementary in Kearns.

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.

That statute, state Sen. Karen Mayne said minutes before the school board’s vote on Jan. 8, must be changed because “we need to bring every school up.” The Democratic lawmaker has now opened a bill file to do as she promised.

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.

It would, in time, replace the Regents’ Scholarship offered by the Utah Board of Regents that rewards high achieving students. Owens urged the board during a meeting Friday to “change your target.”

“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 ...

One state lawmaker is suggesting a policy that would restrict cellphones in schools. A few are focusing on adding more mental health resources — counselors and therapists — to classrooms. Rep. Adam Robertson wants to address school fees, which came under fire in a state audit last year for being excessive and unreasonable.

Another measure is aimed at restructuring the Utah State Board of Education. An attempt to abolish the board entirely was proposed last year. It passed in the Senate but failed in the House. This one is starting in the House.

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.