How schools will be affected by this year’s legislative session
Utah lawmakers ended the 2022 legislative session spending more money than they have ever before by approving a more than $25 billion budget.
The state’s public education system alone is getting about $7.4 billion in total funding, including an additional $465.5 million in state funds on top of last year’s budget.
“We're at one of the high water marks in terms of new funding going into the system,” said Dale Frost, a fiscal policy analyst with the Utah State Board of Education.
Lawmakers approved a 6% increase to the Weighted Pupil Unit, or WPU - the base amount of funding allocated per student enrolled and the most flexible source of funding for schools. That’s one of the largest percentage jumps since 1990, Frost noted.
Brad Asay, president of the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said overall this was a good session for education. On top of funding increases, there was support for programs that will ultimately help schools better serve students. He pointed to measures supporting early literacy and all-day kindergarten, even if the latter was not funded as much as districts originally hoped. There were also funding increases for additional paid-time for teachers.
He said while many of the most controversial education bills failed this session, educators still felt they were under attack. That included bills that could’ve redirected public education funds to private schools, required teachers to get public approval for the materials they use and banned “divisive concepts” in schools.
“We were put in the middle of the political agenda that's been going across the nation,” Asay said. “We felt like we were being attacked, that we weren't trusted as professionals to teach students throughout the state.”
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, called the session “the best of times and the worst of times.” She said the 6% increase to the WPU will go a long way towards helping districts tackle their most pressing needs, whether it is hiring more counselors, reducing class sizes or raising pay.
But she said the efforts to clamp down on teachers put a lingering cloud over the otherwise mostly positive outcomes for education this session.
“We do need to acknowledge the harm that was caused, but at the same time put forth some really exciting opportunities that we are going to have in terms of the pretty historic investments made in public education this year,” she said.
Administrators are already battling shortages of bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other staff, on top of rising fuel costs that impact transportation, said Todd Hauber. He’s the incoming president of the Utah Association of School Business Officials and a business administrator in the Park City School District.
He said every district will have different priorities for the money they’ll get, but staffing will likely remain one of their biggest challenges, even with the increases to funding.
“If they're in a situation where they're watching teachers deciding not to renew contracts for the upcoming school year or leaving the system early, those pressures will probably be greater than some of the other inflationary costs,” he said. “And so school boards will really have to look to what can be done to keep the teaching profession attractive, as well as to retain those teachers who are already excellent teachers in the workforce.”
The next step for all the bills passed during the session is the governor’s desk. Gov. Spencer Cox has 20 days to sign or veto bills following the end of the session.