Utah lawmakers appropriated record funding to Utah’s public schools during the state Legislature’s just-concluded general session, increasing the education budget by $383 million in ongoing revenue, up 9% over the previous year.

The lion’s share of the increase was a 6% bump to the value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of education funding in Utah.

Lawmakers also appropriated $10 million for teacher bonuses, an acknowledgement of the additional responsibilities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also approved a one-time $64 million increase for paid professional hours for teachers under HB396, which was a priority for the Utah Education Association.

“We’re so excited about that bill’s passage and what that’s going to mean for our licensed educators. We can’t make more hours in the day, but we can certainly respect it, and the Legislature has respected that request,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews.

What wasn’t funded? School fees

While Utah schools will receive record funding, it apparently wasn’t enough that education leaders felt comfortable covering school fees with their robust appropriations. Parents pay the fees charged by junior high and high schools for curricular and extracurricular programs. Low-income households are eligible for fee waivers, but half of those who qualify do not seek them, according to a recent report to the Legislature.

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HB211, which sought to eliminate curricular fees, died in the Senate, meaning schools can charge the fees this fall “unless they choose not to do that but there’s no prohibition (on charging them),” said Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, bill’s sponsor.

Robertson said he understands that with rising fuel costs and unmet labor needs in schools, educators were nervous about assuming the costs associated with fees, but the costs were not insurmountable given the total $6 billion appropriated to schools for the coming year.

“I know it’s not easy to run a school. I get the pressures, but I just don’t find a lot of tolerance for not being able to deal with these fees given the huge, huge increase in the amount of public money going to schools,” he said.

Robertson vowed to continue to work on school fees legislation and funding. The bill passed in the House by a wide margin but was not considered in the Senate.

He said he is deeply concerned about the accountability for school fees, particularly the “general fees” that can range from $65 to $120.

“What is that used for? I will dare say it’s a slush fund used for a variety of things. It has no oversight and it can be used for everything, like a pep rally. Parents are paying for a general fee for that? That’s wrong,” Robertson said.

Sorting through ‘extreme’ bills

While the overall increase in funding and funding for specific needs identified by education stakeholders were in many cases addressed by lawmakers, a number of “curriculum transparency” bills emerged during the session, which educators viewed as attacks on their practice as professionals and they pushed back. None of those bills advanced.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in an interview with the Deseret News on Friday teachers were “extremely worried” about the message the bills sent, inferring “that they (educators) don’t know how to do their job.”

Such bills can be “harmful and damaging,” Cox said. None passed, which was the Legislature’s way of saying, “Yeah, we’re not going to pass those extreme bills,” the governor said.

That said, there have been some incidents of Utah teachers behaving inappropriately in their classrooms, he said.

“Now, where there are real problems, we certainly need to fix those, and we’ve had teachers fired who have been bad actors in the past, and that’s how it’s supposed to work,” Cox said.

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Lawmakers, however, did approve HB374, which “prohibits elementary, junior high and high schools from having materials that describe or depict pornographic or indecent acts,” Senate floor sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, explained on the final night of the legislative session.

“This is not about banning books. It’s about a good process for reviewing what books are appropriate in schools under the same standard already applied to students and other materials in our existing code,” he said.   

What happened with school choice vouchers?

Another education proposal actively opposed by most education stakeholders was the Hope Scholarship program, which sought to use public funds to help parents seek private education choices for their children. HB331, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, advanced to the House through the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on a 6-5 vote, but it was defeated by the full House by a vote of 22-53.

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Kindergartners attend class at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Salt Lake City.
Kindergartners attend class at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Lawmakers agreed to put an additional ongoing $12.2 million to further expand full-day kindergarten programs in Utah, which will continue to move the initiative forward, but the appropriation fell short of the $46 million needed to expand the program statewide. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Period products in schools

One bill with widespread support — not a single dissenting vote cast — was HB162, which will require Utah public schools to stock free menstrual hygiene products in female or unisex restrooms. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, was built upon the work of a private-public partnership, The Period Project, which has “advocated for a policy that would address period poverty in Utah,” she said.

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Full-day kindergarten, K-3 literacy

Lawmakers agreed to put an additional ongoing $12.2 million to further expand full-day kindergarten programs in Utah, which will continue to move the initiative forward, but the appropriation fell short of the $46 million needed to expand the program statewide.

Utah public schools provide just 30% of students access to full-day kindergarten, compared to 80% for the rest of the nation, where foundational literacy, numeracy and social skills begin to develop.

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Lawmakers also agreed to spend $9.6 million ongoing and $9.4 million one time to work toward increasing third grade reading scores statewide, under SB127, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said both initiatives will improve K-3 literacy. She and the Utah State Board of Education appreciate “funding targeted at supporting science-based reading practices.”

Meanwhile, Dickson and the board “remain committed to ensuring all of our students eligible for kindergarten have access to full day options. Currently, this applies to only 30% of our students and the funding will expand the opportunities for more families,” she said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

After a tumultuous period of parents pushing back against the teaching of critical race theory in Utah schools — which schools in the state weren’t doing — and a legislative directive for the state school board to develop an administrative rule that spells out what schools cannot teach about diversity, equity and inclusion, lawmakers handily passed SB244.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, requires the state school board to incorporate ethnic studies into the core standards for public schools, grades K-12. It also requires schools to adopt ethnic studies instructional materials and curriculum that align with the state standards.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also approved HB428, sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, which will require school and the state school boards to report data on the demographics of victims of bullying, hazing, cyberbullying or retaliation.

The legislation acknowledges two high-profile cases of young public school students who took their own lives after experiencing bullying at school, their families have said. One of the children, Isabella ‘Izzy’ Faith Tichenor, was just 10 years old.

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Contributing: Katie McKellar