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Week 6: A Lesson On Education In The Legislature

Elaine Clark/KUER

Education is always touted as a top priority, if not THE top priority, during the legislative session. But Utah also ranks consistently low for per-pupil spending compared to the rest of the country. In 2020, Utah was dead-last. During this legislative session, though, lawmakers have passed some pretty education-friendly bills and increased funding by half a billion dollars.

So, we brought in KUER’s education reporter Jon Reed to give us a quick lesson on how lawmakers are funding and regulating schools, teachers and students. We also talked with Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, about what’s raising red flags for them and what they want to see signed into law..


Heidi Matthews, Utah Education Association President

Jon Reed, KUER Education Reporter

Heidi Matthews Interview Highlights

Interview highlights have been edited for length and clarity.

On Utah’s education funding in the past and in 2021:

We have been at the lowest per-pupil funding in the nation for a very long time, and this year I do feel like we have turned a big corner in terms of the amount of funding and the collaboration that has come to pass. We see funding for enrollment growth. We saw funding for an inflationary factor in the weighted pupil unit. Normally, we don't separate inflation from an increase on the weighted pupil unit, so when we would see an increase of, say, 2%, that was really lost in the increasing cost of inflation.

On educators’ legislative priorities this year:

At the beginning of the session, when we made our legislative priorities, one of the things we said was ‘if an educator is not asking for it, don't do it.’ And that didn't play out so well.

I think UEA is tracking around 60 bills. Some that are rising to the top have been those bills that seek to influence local behavior, target certain districts — particularly the Salt Lake School District. Those have been frustrating. We have focused on our more vulnerable students, in particular, H.B. 302 [which would ban trans girls to participate in girls' sports.] We see it as very harmful for some of our most vulnerable students. [S.B.] 175 has been one of concern — that opens up the use of special ed funds that are coming from the state for wider use. We see that as very threatening to an already underfunded special ed funding.

On a positive note, we testified in support of S.B. 184 to eliminate the accountability measures for standardized tests this spring. That means that we're not going to use this test to punish schools. The pandemic has not been standardized, and we can't have a standardized approach about continuing on as if nothing has happened. We know that so many students have been disproportionately impacted based on income, home security, food, race and ethnicity and all of those reasons. We cannot expect a test to capture all of the differences.

Jon Reed Interview Highlights

On how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting education legislation:

It seems like the biggest thing going forward is just to see how students are doing and how they've managed during this whole pandemic. They faced so many disruptions this year from all the challenges of learning online, having to quarantine for days at a time, entire schools shutting down, facing covid-19 outbreaks. So that's the big question going forward is ‘how disruptive has this year been?’ There are a lot of concerns there, and I think it's going to be a real focus for the state and schools going forward.

This isn't necessarily coming from the state, but Utah schools are getting about $274 million in the second round of COVID relief federal funding. So state lawmakers in their budget have specifically directed schools to put most of that money towards addressing learning loss. That would be things like after-school programs, hiring temporary classroom aides and individual learning plans.

On tensions between lawmakers and schools:

Early on, lawmakers said they were giving teachers bonuses, but only if they were in districts that had in-person classes. [That] was clearly singling out teachers in the Salt Lake City school district. For most of the year, they've been entirely remote. And so people that I heard from in the education community were really taken aback by that. It felt like blackmail or strong-arming, and teachers were kind of disgusted about how that all played out.

And then lawmakers, for their part, were pretty open and unapologetic about how it really was about getting Salt Lake City to reopen. Salt Lake City ultimately did reopen and those teachers there will get the bonuses, but it left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths. It's these little signs showing that the legislature — they say they support local control, they want schools to have control, but then they have also been directing things as they see fit.

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Bills Referenced:

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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