Utah educators demand more trust and funding as lawmakers consider controversial bills

Educators say they don’t need to be micromanaged by parents or lawmakers.

As the Legislature weighs changes in education funding and new demands on teachers, more than 300 educators, parents, students and advocates filled the Capitol’s south lawn Tuesday, holding signs that read, “Some things are best left to the professionals. Let us teach,” and “Teachers and educators are not political pawns.”

With many wearing red beanies and sweaters, they chanted, “You leave us no choice. We have to use our teacher voice,” into the blistering wind and posed for photos on the steps of the Capitol.

“To our legislators, enough is enough,” said Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews. “... This legislative session has been an onslaught of attacks against public education, public educators and the unions that represent them.”

Matthews said that 93% of UEA members say they are likely to leave the profession after the 2021-22 academic year. She knows of one second-year teacher, she said, who recently threw her professional development books in the trash and walked out the door of her classroom, never to return.

The protest came hours after House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, presented the Utah State Board of Education with ideas for a potential amendment to the state’s constitution that he said would give the Legislature more flexibility in how it uses funding from income taxes.

The Legislature has been looking at ways to break down the “firewall between income tax and sales tax,” Wilson said. Much of the revenue from state income tax, which is increasing faster than the revenue from sales tax, is guaranteed under the state constitution to fund education. Wilson gave the board two proposals that would change that firewall, in part to accommodate the removal of sales tax on food.

The first would amend the constitution to permanently protect a “rainy day” fund for public education, which would receive a percentage of any budget surpluses. It would also provide inflation-based increases to education faster, based on a three-year rolling average rather than five.It would add four days of paid professional time for teachers and money for supplies and materials.

The second would retain income tax funding for public education but would allow for unexpected spikes in revenue, considered “above trend” revenue, to be used outside education. It also would require funding of a “stabilization” account, as well the rainy day fund, to ensure education retains funding in economic downturns.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Herriman High social studies teacher Michael Stone holds a flag in strong bitter cold winds as educators, parents and other public school advocates rally on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Advocates feel many anti-public school measures have been considered by the Legislature this year.

Utahns would vote on the measures on ballots in November. The board did not express support for either option and will discuss them again on Thursday.

Education and its funding have been central topics during the 2022 Legislative session. Lawmakers have proposed bills that would allow students to take public education funding with them to a private or home school, require teachers to present lesson plans to parents 30 days in advance and have proposed renaming the state’s education fund as the “Income Tax Fund.”

Teachers derided the bills during the protest. They are already tired of dealing with the “mental health tsunami” students are navigating because of the pandemic, said Park City High School teacher Kelly Yeates. “We don’t need more hoops to jump through,” she added.

Speakers from education associations throughout Salt Lake Valley asked the Legislature to trust the Utah State Board of Education’s standards for curriculum and to ensure that funding given to students at public schools stays there. Matthews asked the Legislature for a 7.5% increase to per-pupil funding.

“In reality, these laws close opportunities from students,” Yeates said. “They stifle [the] creativity of teachers and send a direct message that we are not trusted. It’s demoralizing and it needs to stop.” Parents who want to see what their children are studying, Yeates noted, can already access teaching materials on Canvas, an online system that shows assignments and other information.

“Transparency in education is not achieved through coercion,” said Park City High School student Carly McAleer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several hundred educators, parents and other public school advocates rally on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Advocates feel many anti-public school measures have been made by the Legislature this year.

Utah Teacher of the Year John Arthur said that teachers are used to fighting for their students at the Capitol, but this session doesn’t feel the same.

“I remember the good old days when we just had to fight for funding,” Arthur said. “Now it feels like we have to fight for our lives ... I just couldn’t believe that after all that we’ve given, all that we’ve done ... You’re going to ask more of us?”

Just inside the Capitol, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, was holding her own news conference about recent amendments to her controversial school voucher legislation, HB331.

The bill would establish a “Hope Scholarship Program,” essentially allowing students to take public school funding with them when they transfer to private or home schools.

The amendment adds bullying as a qualifier for applicants to the program. It also matches scholarships to the average amount of per-pupil funding, based on local and state funding, according to Pierucci.

During an emotional series of speeches, proponents of the bill shared personal anecdotes about their children being bullied or otherwise disadvantaged while attending public schools.

Debbie Mulholland, a Layton mother of four students enrolled in public education, said her daughter had recently been called names and pushed by other students in her school’s hallways.

“Despite schools’ best efforts, bullying still happens,” she said. “And it is not always something they can stop completely.”

She said the voucher program would give her the ability to pick which educational setting best fits each of her children. Many of the speakers’ remarks revolved around being given increased freedom.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several hundred educators, parents and other public school advocates rally on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Advocates feel many anti-public school measures have been made by the Legislature this year.

Pierucci spoke last, telling the crowd of nearly 70, “I am a product of public education. I think we have a great public education system, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that a one-size-fits-all approach works.”

In an interview following the news conference, she rejected the notion that HB331 would negatively impact Utah’s public education system.

“This bill is supporting public education and supporting parents with options; they’re not mutually exclusive,” she said.

After passing the House Revenue and Taxation Committee earlier this month in a 6-5 vote, the bill was circled on the House floor on Thursday. Pierucci said she is hopeful the measure will be voted on either this week or the next.

However, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox recently said he would veto the bill even if it did pass through the Legislature. Pierucci said she had talked to Cox and hopes he will keep an “open mind” about the final versionof the legislation.