Here are the public school bills we can get behind (and those we can’t), Editorial Board writes

Threatening teachers is no way to build a strong educational system.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Highland high teacher Brock Edwards joins other educators, parents and public school advocates as they 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.

Too many members of the Utah Legislature fail to see that each new attack on the professionalism, independence and funding of the state’s educators can do nothing but harm the children who spend so much of their young lives in those teachers’ charge.

Or maybe they do see it, but they don’t care. The politicians and activists perhaps just have too much to gain from bashing teachers and giving undeserved credence to wild rumors about nefarious goings-on in classrooms, labs and libraries.

To hear some of our political class tell it, public schools are hotbeds of anti-Caucasian rebellion, communism and gay sex. Acting on these absurd beliefs is not just a waste of time and resources, it can only serve to undermine public faith in an institution that is at the core of a civilized society.

It’s not that the answer to the many woes of public education is just to throw more money at it. It isn’t. And it’s not that our schools do not, any less than any other human institution, have problems, weak links, poor performers and a need for oversight. They do.

But there is a huge gap between reasonable legislative oversight and the current wave of right-wing activism that serves no purpose other than to cause parents, taxpayers and employers to turn their backs on public education and start putting their faith and our money into alternatives. Alternatives that, at best, will draw resources away from schools that will always have the job of educating the vast majority of our children and that, at worst, will seek to shield coming generations from the understanding of the wider world they will not only live in, but be expected to run.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said 93% of her members are looking at quitting the profession after the current school year. It’s not just the bad pay, which has always been a given for teachers in Utah, but the overt levels of disrespect from lawmakers, activists and far too many parents — most of whom are clueless about what goes on in a school from day to day.

Even if Matthews’ figure is exaggerated, it still points to a problem that will cripple our system of public education and handicap children specifically and our culture and economy generally. A problem that won’t be solved by harassing educators and cutting spending.

Utah is not alone in suffering from a move among its politicians to win votes and raise money by pretending to stand between innocent children and an educational system that, in these activists’ fevered imaginations, exists to make white children feel inferior, to undermine their belief in the United States as perfect and unsurpassed and to replace the morals and standards of their parents with some exotic belief system that involves lots of gender switching.

The 2022 session of the Utah Legislature began with an unwise move to cut more than $160 million in income tax revenue, the stream dedicated by the state Constitution to mostly go to education. It went on to toy with proposals designed to put teachers on notice that they can be trolled, fired, even sued, for teaching truths about human behavior and American history that might make some overly sheltered parents uncomfortable.

The good news is those harassment bills appear to be stuck in committee. There is also reason to hope that a new move to allow parents to take taxpayers money with them if they choose to enroll their children in private schools — Rep. Candice Pierucci’s HB331 — may also be lost in the legislative process. And that, even if it does pass, faces a likely and much-deserved veto from Gov. Spencer Cox.

There are some victories for public education still possible. One of them is a measure from Rep. Steve Waldrip and Sen. Ann Millner — HB193 — that would put $47 million toward an effort to offer full-day kindergarten in all state public school districts. The bill has already passed the House by a healthy margin and should be supported in the Senate as well.

Participation would be voluntary, but there’s no question that beefed-up kindergarten can go a long way toward preparing young children for the rest of their educational career. That’s something that would make school go smoother for those children, their classmates, their teachers and the educational system as a whole.

It is reasonable and proper to consider differing ideas for how best to strengthen Utah’s public education system. They don’t all have to cost a lot of money and they ought to leave room for charter schools and other routes to innovation and alternatives.

But Utahs should be in touch with their lawmakers, and their governor, to let them know that every proposal concerning our schools should have as their goal not undermining our system but building one that is stronger and better able to serve all children with a kaleidoscope of needs.