Utah lawmakers running nearly a hundred education-related bills

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s lawmakers are currently sifting through nearly 100 bills related to education.

Some education groups say those bills need to stop, or at least slow down. The Senate’s majority leaders agree it’s a lot, but they also say they’re trying to prioritize what passes.

The Utah School Board’s Association says it’s tracking 102 bills that impact public education.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, the Utah Education Association, said it is tracking 99.

The bills span everything from new funding and incentives for teachers to changes to the teachers union itself, and topics teachers can and can’t promote in the classroom.

For the groups, they want lawmakers to collaborate earlier in the year, and over the interim to reduce the number of bills brought forward.

“I think it would be really great if at least we had a plan. So it wasn’t just willy nilly whatever you feel like your neighbor is upset about, you’re going to sponsor that legislation this year,” said Terry Rhodes, president of the Utah School Boards Association.

Dr. Lexi Cunningham represents the Utah Superintendents Association, Utah School Boards Association, and the Utah Association of School Business Officials jointly. The groups meet weekly to vote on education legislation.

She said he’s hearing a recurring message from teachers.

“Like how much more can we take? You know, what does this mean for us in the classroom? Are we going to be able to do our jobs? Are we going to be nervous every day about saying A, B, and C or X, Y, and Z?”

The state’s largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association said it surveyed 3,000 teachers before the session started.

“Nearly 30% said their top priority was for lawmakers to reject new initiatives that would contribute to existing stress and burnout among educations,” a UEA spokesperson said.

“This was closely followed by 28% of member educators saying their top priority was an effort to reduce class sizes.”

“I think what’s happening is we’ve seen year after year of 100 plus bills which will equate to new reports, our new rules from (The Utah State Board of Education), new reporting requirements for our districts,” Cunningham said.

And the groups say they can’t get the legislation implemented fast enough before new rules come out.

“Here’s a best-kept secret among school boards. We’re almost always out of compliance because we can’t get it done,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said that’s especially felt by rural districts, where they have far fewer kids and staff than districts along the Wasatch front.

“They may have only four administrators who are wearing four or five hats to try and cover all of the requirements (put out by the state),” Rhodes said.

Cunningham said bills that add cost without funding are among the bills that will get a “no” from her groups.

“Does it take away local control from schools, districts, and our teachers? That typically will be a no vote for us. Is it putting more administrative demands on teachers in schools? That will be a no vote for us,” she said.

The groups said they support bills like paying teachers stipends while they student teach, a post-retirement bill changing how retired teachers, state employees, and public safety employees are paid, and a clean-up bill to get more teachers the raises implemented last session.

Bills that concern them include a classroom neutrality bill prohibiting “advocacy” by teachers in classrooms, a referendum bill on any tax increases to districts, and a big school safety bill that requires an armed guard, who in some cases could be a volunteer.

What lawmakers are saying

The state’s Senate majority leaders agree there are a lot of bills, but say the state is prioritizing them and doing some good.

“I think we’re going through a pretty deliberative process to determine which of those should pass and which shouldn’t,” said Sen. Majority Whip Ann Millner, R – Ogden.

The legislature is finalizing its budget for next year and says education is a top priority.

“Education is our number one priority up here.” Sen. President Stuart Adams said. “That’s why you have that many bills.”

They’re also working on bills that give tax credits for educator expenses, a parental leave policy, and a bill aimed at retaining teachers.

“I think we’re trying to be careful and thoughtful to make sure education policy is correct.  It does bring lots of, as you know, very diverse viewpoints but that’s as it should be.”

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