Robert Gehrke: Utah’s Republican legislators spoil their good deed on education

Legislators are not required to meet in person, but they want to force teachers to be in the classroom.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Listening to the Legislature’s budget meeting Wednesday was a little like watching my favorite Christmas show, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” — only in reverse.

It opened with Republican leaders, with tremendous fanfare, thundering down from Mount Crumpit bearing gifts, in this case an unprecedented amount of new money for Utah’s public schools, like their heart had grown three sizes.

It was $400 million in new funding, including the promise of $1,500 bonuses for teachers. Educators were effusive. It was great!

By the end, though, the Grinch had sneakily slunk in and snatched away the bonus from teachers whose school districts were not holding in-person classes. There is only one district that is not offering classes in person — the hated Salt Lake City District.

It was a blatant attempt to force Salt Lake City schools to ditch online classes in favor of in-person schooling, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said as much — that if the teachers want the money they’d better get back to face-to-face lessons by the time the Legislature convenes Jan. 19.

It’s almost like these Republican leaders couldn’t help themselves, taking something heralded and making it hollow, petty and punitive, overshadowing the magnanimity with malice.

I’m sensitive to the desire to have kids in schools, in part because my high school son has been taking classes mostly online and it’s not the same as being in a classroom. Moreover, there has been excellent reporting in The Salt Lake Tribune in recent days about the toll online education is taking on school kids.

Roughly 4,000 Salt Lake City middle and high school students received at least one F or incomplete grade in the first quarter, 1,500 more than last year. And 364 secondary students failed every one of their first quarter classes, a 600% increase since last year.

I’ve written several times about how the state should be smarter and more flexible when it comes to schooling in the pandemic — that we should lean toward having younger kids in-person and older kids on a staggered, hybrid schedule or, if the spread of the virus is low (which it is not), in-person.

But as convinced as I am that these are good ideas, it’s not my decision. And it’s not Brad Wilson’s decision either. Because in our state, the school boards are their own, independent branch of government. The reason they are is that, as Republican legislators are so fond of reminding us, the government closest to the people governs best.

The Salt Lake City School Board decided not to hold in-person classes after hearing from the people they represent — both teachers, but more importantly the parents. It plans to phase in in-person classes, starting with kindergartners next month, but not before Wilson’s Jan. 20 deadline.

It’s worth noting that the Davis School District, that Wilson represents, has the most COVID-19 infections in the state, a number that has taken off since the district moved from a hybrid model to in-person classes.

And now Republican leaders want to steamroll the decision of these local elected officials and hold these teachers to a standard that they won’t even impose on their own legislative bodies.

Here’s what I mean: All throughout the summer and fall, Utah legislators have been holding their regular interim meetings, where they tee up issues for the session that starts in January. Throughout that time only about 20% to 40% of legislators have showed up to those meetings in person. (I’m relying on estimates from lawmakers here).

The rest have attended — you guessed it — remotely and some, it appears, while on vacation. That’s fine that they don’t feel safe being in a room with their colleagues. Perhaps these lawmakers would feel more at ease if they were crammed into a room with 30 high school students who we know from experience are most likely to spread the virus.

If COVID doesn’t get you, the hormones and Axe body spray will.

But these legislators who choose to attend meetings remotely aren’t being punished. In fact, even though they’re attending from home, they still get the $45 daily allowance intended to pay for meals when they’re on official business at the Capitol.

There is a way to show appreciation and offer assistance to teachers without being so petty and punitive.

If you want to reward teachers who are in fact putting their health and their family’s safety on the line every day, then call it what it is — hazard pay, a thank you for risking your life so kids can learn — and give it to those teachers who are actually engaged in in-person classroom instruction.

Here’s another idea: Take half of the $121 million lawmakers want to spend on the bonuses/extortion kickbacks, and give income tax rebates to some of the businesses and workers who have been impacted by COVID shutdowns — restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and the employees who rely on them.

I mean no disrespect to teachers, but the fact remains that they are working, unlike so many others who are feeling the full economic brunt of the pandemic and are desperate for help.

Or, legislators can do what it appears they’re intent on doing, paying lip-service to the notion of local control while wielding their power like a weapon to punish those who, like all of us during this pandemic, are simply trying to do the best they can.