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Utah teachers were left feeling bruised after a confrontational couple of months for education this legislative session.
There were proposals to vet all lesson plans and curriculum. One lawmaker wanted to review an educator’s license if they talked about a controversial topic. Another want to give parents the signoff on what was taught in the classroom.
“What other professionals have hundreds of bills each session telling us how to do our jobs?” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state. “From week one, there was an onslaught of attacks on public education and public educators.”
It was a session like no other in recent years, where educators say they were having to defend their jobs and felt micromanaged by state lawmakers. And it came after they say they have already been overburdened and underappreciated, especially with the pandemic.
“Regardless of intent, the message of distrust has had a very negative impact on educators, teachers, members of the UEA,” Matthews added.
They celebrated when a voucher bill didn’t pass but were frustrated when a measure to ban books with “sensitive materials” from school libraries gained passage. Funding for students got a boost but the state Education Fund, overall, saw a decrease due to tax cuts.
There were successes with paid teacher prep days, which felt countered by giving state leaders more authority over when schools should be open with COVID outbreaks.
“I know it sounds cliché, but this legislative session was the best of times and the worst of times,” Matthews said.
Here’s a breakdown of the many education measures debated at Utah’s Capitol this year:
Attacks on curriculum
Four bills were proposed this session to scrutinize teachers’ lessons plans and give parents more say in what is taught in the classroom.
The measures were an offshoot of the conservative push that has bloomed across the country in the past year against critical race theory (with Utah lawmakers banning the academic framework from being taught in the last session, though there is no evidence that it was being used in K-12 classrooms here).
The first bill on the topic was SB114 from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. It sought to allow parents to scrutinize instructional materials for all grade levels and subject matters in Utah’s public schools before approval for use. The measure drew vocal opposition from educators — and both teachers unions in the state — but strong support from conservative parent groups.
Under the bill, a school district or charter would have needed to post all main materials, such as textbooks and videos, online for parents to review or recommend alternatives. Then, a district’s school board would need to hold a public meeting on those items. Only after that would a school board be able to vote to adopt the materials.
The measure passed in committee but then stalled. The other bills on curriculum also failed to gain traction.
One lawmaker, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, pulled his bill that would have required teachers post their class syllabuses and a list of learning materials online for parents to inspect. He cited a “coordinated misinformation campaign” against it after a petition from the Utah Education Association gathered more than 30,000 signatures.
Two measures from Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, also stalled. SB257 would have punished Utah teachers and professors for talking about “divisive concepts” in the classroom — triggering an investigation into their licenses if they do. Concerns were raised that it applied to both public colleges, which are supposed to be guaranteed academic freedom, and K-12 schools.
His second bill, SB157, never got a committee hearing. It would have given parents the authorization to sue schools or education officials for any perceived infringement of their rights, namely if a teacher taught something they didn’t agree with. When the measure became public, it sparked instant outcry.
“At the end of the day, very few of these bills moved forward, thankfully,” Matthews said. “It’s important to see these bad bills in context of a national wave of attacks on public education, public educators, and the unions and associations who represent them.”
Yes to ethnic studies
On the other side of the debate, a bill creating a committee to study how ethnic studies could and should be taught in Utah classrooms sailed through the Legislature.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said the measure is about teaching the history and contributions of all minorities.
The committee, which will include a majority of people of color, will make recommendations on curriculum to the Utah State Board of Education. The board will then finalize the plans for the classroom in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The bill was supported by both the Salt Lake City and Ogden chapters of the NAACP.
Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden NAACP branch, said she is looks forward to seeing “a more robust and complete history” taught in classrooms here that includes people from all backgrounds.
“It’s something I think is critically important for my children and all children,” she said during a committee hearing on the bill. “We need to open up and not be fearful.”
A bill on bullying after a child’s death
This measure was spurred by the recent death of Izzy Tichenor, a 10-year-old Black girl, who died by suicide after her mother says she was bullied.
All Utah public K-12 schools will now need to track demographic data on cases of bullying to determine whether students of color in the state are being targeted.
“We have a problem with racism in our schools,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the sponsor, said during a committee hearing. “And we cannot lose another life as a result.”
Since she started drafting the bill, a second Utah child died by suicide. Drayke Hardman, who was 12, died on Feb. 10. His parents say he was also bullied at his Tooele charter school, though it wasn’t race-related.
Following his death, Hollins expanded her bill to include him, as well. In addition to race, schools will also need to collect data on a bullied’s students gender, age and disability status. She wants districts to use the information to better respond to cases and protect students with targeted interventions.
The data will be collected by adding extra questions to climate surveys — one conducted by the Utah State Board of Education and the other by the Utah Department of Health — already given annually to students in the state.
Banning ‘pornographic’ books
A controversial bill passed at the last minute that bans any books containing “pornographic or indecent” content from Utah schools, both in libraries and in the classroom.
“I think we know the things that are most egregious,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who sponsored the measure. “We can’t leave them there and do nothing.”
Under the bill, the definition of what meets the standard of “porn” is the same as what already is in Utah law. That broadly includes anything that, when taken as a whole, could be considered “harmful to minors” in the representation of nudity or sexual conduct or that “appeals to prurient interest in sex.”
Ivory’s bill makes an exception for school books for health and medical classes.
The proposal, HB374, comes in response to a book banning movement that has been led by conservative parent groups across the nation, including here with Utah Parents United. Here in Canyons School District, nine books have been targeted. In Washington County School District, five titles were reviewed and two pulled. And in Davis School District, another list of nine was created by parents.
Most of those considered offensive focus on race and the LGBTQ community, including “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about the author’s journey of self-identity.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said he reviewed the books under question in Davis School District.
“Some of the content in those books, while I’m not a prude, I think would’ve made Monica Lewinsky blush,” he said Friday.
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, pushed back, saying she was concerned that just pieces of books were being looked at instead of the whole. She said she fears that books about important topics, such as the Holocaust, will be blocked for having one graphic passage.
“They may be uncomfortable, but at the same time there’s a lot of learning to be had from those issues,” she said. She voted against the measure.
Those opposed to removing the books also say the effort feels targeted to silence minority voices, and several lawmakers fought against it.
But others said it gave schools direction on what they could remove.
Weiler said: “It’s about a good process, a process for reviewing what books are available in schools.”
No to a voucher bill
A controversial bill to create a $36 million school voucher program failed to pass this session — to the celebration of public-school educators who were opposed to it.
Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, had sponsored the idea, which she called the Hope Scholarship. The program would have allowed students to take public school funding with them, in the form of a scholarship, if they transferred to a private school or home schooling.
The scholarships were set up to be income-based, so families making less money would have been awarded more — sometimes double what a student would traditionally be allocated in the public system. Pierucci said she wanted to give low-income and middle-class families more education options if public school wasn’t helping their child succeed.
“The last few years have shown that a one-size approach really hasn’t worked for every child,” Pierucci said.
But education advocates were strongly opposed. Teachers rallied against the bill, saying it would harm public K-12 schools and drain even more money away from them. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox had also promised to veto the legislation if it came to his desk.
UEA President Heidi Matthews said she was worried it would “siphon money without accountability.”
It ended up dying just days before the end of the session.
COVID school bill gives authority to state leaders
A bill that made a splash early in the session — and the only measure focused on COVID-19 in schools — was HB183.
As outbreaks of omicron spread in classrooms, the measure granted legislative leaders the power to sign off on individual school closings due to the pandemic and ended the Test to Stay program in the state.
Under the new and lengthy procedure, a school that reaches the state’s threshold for an outbreak will first have to appeal to the district’s local school board, asking that students be allowed to learn remotely. The school board will then need to hold a public meeting to vote on whether to take that action. If the members vote in favor, they will next have to ask for permission from the state.
Approval to go online will require signoff from all four of the top-ranking leaders in Utah: the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the state superintendent.
Only then, if they have gotten an unanimous OK, will schools be able to tell families that they’re moving to online learning.
The governor has already signed this and it is now law.
But it raised concerns about government overreach. Teachers, district administrators and a few prominent attorneys in the state said it impedes a school’s ability to react quickly to a surge in virus cases and takes away their local authority granted under the Utah Constitution.
Gov. Spencer Cox, though, defended the measure saying: “The virus has been evolving and our response needs to, too.”
Providing period products
There will soon be free period products available in Utah public school restrooms.
A milestone bill, HB162 passed with major support in both the House and Senate. It came after a rally of women and girls called for support before the session started. Many had shared their personal stories about not being able to afford pads or tampons and missing schools.
“Access to period products is as necessary as toilet paper,” said Emily McCormick, a mom and advocate who is leading the effort called The Period Project.
The effort is made possible by funding from a public-private partnership. The dispensers are being donated by longtime philanthropist Gail Miller’s foundation and the Andrus Family Foundation. And the Legislature designated money to pay for the period products until school districts absorb the cost into their budgets by July 2025.
Paid teacher prep days
This measure was cheered on by educators.
It will require the state to allocate funding — $64 million — to districts and charters for teachers to have additional paid hours to prepare for their classes. It includes school counselors and administrators.
The money should cover an extra four days per educator next year. Many heralded the bill, especially after how taxing the pandemic has been on teachers.
“While this bill doesn’t create more hours in the day, it does respect the challenges teachers and educators have faced that demand more and more time,” said Matthews, president of the UEA.
Earlier in the session, lawmakers abandoned an effort proposing a constitutional change that would remove the funding earmark for education. But they vowed to come back to it in the interim.
Meanwhile, they boosted per-pupil funding in Utah’s public schools by about 6%.
They also added $168 million in ongoing funds for education. But that doesn’t quite make up the difference for the money that will come out of the Education Fund, with the $193 million income tax cut package they approved.
School districts in the state should start offering full-day kindergarten options.
Currently, 30% of kindergartners participate in a full-day program, landing Utah among the bottom of the list compared to other states. Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said having a full-day program available is helpful to working parents and benefits kids, too.
When Washington County School District added full-day kindergarten, about 96% of families opted in, Waldrip said.
Attending kindergarten, in general, would still not be required in Utah under the bill.
Waldrip had requested $22.7 million for the program. But it was funded about half of that, at $12 million.