Here’s how Utah public schools could change after a whirlwind of new education bills

Lawmakers passed roughly 70 bills related to K-12 schools in the latest legislative session.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Jennifer Crystal's second grade class at Heber Valley Elementary School in Heber City on Wednesday, July 5, 2023. Lawmakers passed roughly 70 bills related to K-12 schools in the latest legislative session.

From bathroom bans to book bans, Utah lawmakers passed a whirlwind of legislation this year that stands to change public schools as you know them across the state.

Transgender students aren’t allowed to use public school restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity, under a bill Gov. Spencer Cox swiftly signed into law in January. The measure applies to all government-owned and controlled buildings.

School districts — as well as public colleges, universities and government offices — will also need to dismantle diversity programs and positions, according to a sweeping bill Cox signed into law the same day, two weeks after the session began. And public K-12 schools will be banned from using the terms “diversity, equity and inclusion” under the measure.

Beyond that fast-tracked legislation, roughly 70 others bills could impact Utah’s K-12 students and teachers.

Here’s how key things may change:

It could get easier to ban books statewide

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman walks past dozens of banned books displayed on a table in Weller Book Works in Trolley Square for Banned Book Week in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

Banning books statewide would get significantly easier under HB29.

The measure, which the Legislature passed last month, allows for a single book to be removed from all Utah public schools if at least three school districts (or at least two school districts and five charter schools) determine the book amounts to “objective sensitive material.”

Utah law defines “objective sensitive material” as inherently pornographic or otherwise indecent material that does not have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”

The Utah State Board of Education would have an opportunity to override the automatic statewide ban, according to the bill. To do so, board members would have to meet within 60 days of the threshold being met to discuss reinstating a book.

Without a hearing, the ban would stand. But if board leaders voted to override it, the districts and charter schools that originally opted to remove a book could still keep it off shelves.

Should Cox sign it, the bill would take effect on July 1 and apply retroactively to all “objective sensitive materials” removed from student access prior to that date. As of Wednesday afternoon, Cox had not signed it into law — and education advocates across the state are urging him not to.

Together, they penned an open letter to Cox on Feb. 27 asking him to veto it. The letter was signed by leaders of organizations including the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; the Utah chapter of PEN America; national library advocacy group EveryLibrary; the Utah Library Association; and the Utah Educational Library Media Association.

Students may see more guns in schools

(Rick Bowmer | AP Photo) A secretary at Timpanogos Academy participates in drills at the Utah County Sheriff's Office shooting range during a training for educators in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah, on June 29, 2019.

Lawmakers passed two bills that could pave the way for more school employees to carry guns in schools: HB84 and HB119, both categorized as school safety measures.

HB119 would create the “Educator Protector Program,” which would give participating teachers near-blanket liability protections should they use a gun on school grounds — something gun safety advocates argued was dangerous.

The bill would also provide participating teachers with free access to annual training that instructs educators how to defend classrooms against active threats, as well as how to safely load, unload, store and carry firearms in a school.

The second bill, HB84, would require local education agencies, such as school districts, to have one of three kinds of armed personnel on school campuses: a school resource officer, an armed school security guard, or a “school guardian.”

A school guardian can be any school staffer, excluding teachers or principals. They would need to attend annual firearms proficiency trainings and would also receive training twice a year on the specific campus they work at, as well as participate in a “live-action practice plan” on responding to active threats.

Panic buttons would also need to be installed in all classrooms, modeled after “Alyssa’s Law,” which has passed in multiple states and was inspired by a campaign from Lori Alhadeff, the mother of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old student killed in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Cox had signed neither bill into law as of Wednesday afternoon.

Students could be studying the Ten Commandments

Utah students may soon study the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta as historical documents in U.S. history classes.

The bill, HB0269, is an amended version of a previous draft titled “Ten Commandments in Public Schools,” which would have required public schools to display a poster of the Ten Commandments.

The final version the Legislature passed removed that requirement and instead added the Ten Commandments, as well as the Magna Carta, to “a list of historical documents and principles” that schools have the option to include for “thorough study.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Cox had not signed the bill into law.

More microschools could pop up

(Ian Lindsey) Students attend class at Acton Academy St. George, a microschool in St. George, Utah.

Several bills this session aimed to expand school choice in Utah. That included SB13, which stands to grant microschools (small schools that operate as homeschool/private school hybrids) the same zoning privileges as charter and private schools.

That means they could open in residential neighborhoods, converted downtown storefronts, shopping malls and more, because they would be considered a “permitted use” across all zoning districts within a county.

Lawmakers also doubled spending allocations for the Utah Fits All scholarship — the state’s largest-ever school voucher program.

With $80 million in public money now available, as many as 10,000 students could receive $8,000 vouchers to spend on approved private school or microschool tuition and educational expenses, including extracurriculars.

Both had yet to receive the governor’s signature as of Wednesday afternoon.

What didn’t pass, including a ban on classroom pride flags

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Jennifer Crystal's second grade class at Heber Valley Elementary School in Heber City on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

Utah class sizes are among the highest in the nation, according to a recent study by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

HB512 could have helped alleviate that by prioritizing K-3 enrollment instead of K-8 enrollment when allocating funds from an existing $188.2 million “class size reduction” program.

That’s because K-3 is a crucial time for literacy development, Democratic Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, the bill’s sponsor, said last month. She argued that smaller class sizes at that age offer younger students the individualized attention they need during their formative years. The bill ultimately failed to pass.

Utah lawmakers also tried three times to effectively ban the display of pride flags in public schools.

The first attempt was through HB303, which would have banned teachers from displaying political or religious symbols in their classrooms, including pride flags.

The bill also stood to prevent teachers from “endorsing or disparaging” certain “political” viewpoints, including LGBTQ-related issues such as “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”

When that failed, Senate Republicans tried twice on the final day of the session to sidestep the standard legislative process by pushing for a de facto ban on displaying pride flags in school classrooms. The attempts failed.