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$10 million ‘teacher empowerment’ bill headed to the Utah Senate

SB137 would boost the state’s highest-performing teachers’ salaries to $100,000 annually and give educators more options for professional development

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A classroom door is pictured at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City.

A classroom door is pictured at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Aug. 22, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A legislative proposal the sponsor says is intended to empower teachers with merit pay for high performance and give them more options to control their classrooms, won unanimous approval of a Senate committee Thursday afternoon.

SB137, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would also give teachers more options for professional development — including travel to conferences — and ensure that the academic performance of students who are chronically absent and consequently have fallen behind do not negatively impact teachers’ evaluations.

“My overall goal here is to try to make sure that we are empowering teachers and how they are trained, how they are supported, how they teach in the classroom and remove the political interference,” he told members of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill has a $10 million fiscal note, but no one spoke about the cost of the proposal during its committee hearing.

Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, highlighted the proposal during his opening address to senators on the first day of the 2024 legislative session.

“The goal is to identify the best-performing teachers and reward their efforts by increasing their salaries to $100,000. It is important to compensate them for their dedication and improvement of student outcomes,” Adams said.

Fillmore said as he developed the bill over the summer, he met with educators who expressed that student discipline has become increasingly difficult.

“As I would talk with administrators and districts about why they think that was true, what they would often say is, ‘We are so leery of getting a civil rights complaint from the federal Department of Education that we are just adopting these policies that limit what teachers can do inside the classroom,’ ” he said.

SB37 would give school districts permission to adopt discipline policies or other policies that might conflict with nonbinding legal federal guidance such as “Dear Colleague” letters.

The legislation would empower educators to control the environment in their own classroom and indemnify them with state funding in the event of a federal challenge.

Nate Crippes, public affairs supervising attorney for Utah’s Disability Law Center, expressed concern about allowing districts and charter schools to ignore nonbinding guidance from the federal government.

“That guidance is often designed to help LEAs (local educational agencies) understand their obligations under federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities and the guidance is often designed to prevent discrimination of students with disabilities among others,” he said.

Crippes said the Disability Law Center appreciates lawmakers’ desire to provide help to teachers. “We believe the way to do that is to give them some more support in the classroom, not increase the number of students they could remove.”

Jay Blain, the Utah Education Association’s director of policy and research, thanked Fillmore for his willingness to work on the bill to make it more productive.

“The concepts are, as some of the members of the committee have already said, very important, very timely, to the educators in the field,” Blain said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to SB37. The correct bill number is SB137.