The headline-grabbing education stories coming out of the 2015 Utah General Legislative Session include an overall $510 million increase in education spending, a 4 percent bump in the WPU, a call for minimizing student testing and a stalemate on state school board elections. But some of the biggest wins for educators happened behind the scenes, with legislation that would have been detrimental to students and educators either dropped, voted down or significantly improved prior to passing.
For example, bills to curtail our rights to collective bargaining never surfaced, a proposal to extend the probationary period for new teachers to five years and make it easier to fire teachers failed (SB260), a new ‘voucher’ proposal to give a tax credit for home-school students failed (HB134), efforts to make our school board members subject to partisan elections were rejected and many attempts to divert school funding to specific private vendors were rejected or significantly reduced. (See details below.)
By the time the final gavel of the 2015 Utah General Legislative Session fell at midnight March 12, the UEA was tracking more than 120 education-related bills. Of those, 58 passed both the House and the Senate.
“This session clearly had many ups and downs, but in the end, there are reasons to have hope,” said UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh. “We should feel very proud of what we accomplished. Your UEA Legislative Team worked diligently behind the scenes, gaining access to legislators and building relationships. We also forged strong partnerships within the labor community and the education coalition, including the Utah PTA, the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah School Superintendents Association and many others.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the efforts of your UEA Legislative Team who worked long hours in a stressful environment to represent the interests of teachers and students. But the real difference-makers were the thousands of teachers who let their voice be heard.”
Educators played a significant role in influencing legislation in 2015:
- Almost 400 educators participated in our Educator Day on the Hill events this year, nearly double the attendance of previous years.
- About 3,000 attended the March 9 public education rally, by some accounts the largest Capitol rally in at least a decade (see below). Most participants wrote personal notes to legislators.
- Thousands of UEA members made direct contact with their legislators.
- More than 2,200 teachers responded to the UEA legislative survey, providing data and classroom stories that were shared with legislators.
Stand Up for Public Education Rally: UEA member efforts to contact legislators and attend the March 9 public education rally made a difference. Several sources said there were legislators wanting to hold the WPU increase at 2.5 percent who, after hearing about the rally, were swayed to agree to a 4 percent bump. The rally turnout also influenced legislators’ decision to adopt the $75 million increase for public school equalization funding that otherwise may not have had the support to pass. (See more about the rally.)
Here are a few key issues and how they fared:
The final budget restored the items cut during a 2 percent budget-cutting “exercise”, funded new student growth and added 4 percent to the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU). The legislature did not fully fund the governor’s proposed 6.25 percent WPU increase, which the UEA strongly supported throughout the session. However, when all the budget items are added, education received about $510 million in new funding, very close to the governor’s request.
The funding includes a $75 million increase for public school equalization funding that comes from Utah's property tax levy, which makes up about 40 percent of school funding. It also includes $6 million for teacher supply money (an increase of $1 million), funding of the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Grants, a new building for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, and $8 million to fund the school turnaround bill, SB235 (see below).
A significant amount of the new $510 million is one-time money and includes money going to higher education for building construction and other uses. The legislature also elected to direct money to special projects rather than trusting local control by putting it on the WPU where school districts have more flexibility to use the funding where it is most needed. Even with this new investment, Utah public education funding remains below where it was in 2007, prior to the recession. (See more about the 2015 budget.)
Several bills affecting educator licensure were proposed this session. UEA opposed any bill that weakened educator licensing requirements or that legislated licensing changes currently under the purview of the State Board of Education. Here are a few examples:
- A competency-based licensure bill that would allow a teacher to be licensed by taking a competency-based test (HB264) failed after being held by the House Education Committee.
- A bill that would allow an online course for Utah students to be taught by a teacher licensed in another state but not licensed in Utah (SB275) passed the Senate but was not heard in the House.
- A bill requiring all teacher preparation programs in Utah be accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (HB257) failed after never receiving a committee hearing.
- A bill allowing an educator who is highly qualified in English, math or science to teach a career and technical education (CTE) course in their subject area without becoming endorsed in the CTE area (HB392) failed after being held by the House Education Committee.
- An administrator licensure bill requiring the State Board of Education to make rules to allow someone without a teaching license or a graduate degree in education to earn an administrative license (HB197) passed, but was vetoed by the governor. UEA was able to work with the sponsor to make improvements prior to final passage, but continued to strongly oppose the bill and ultimately asked the governor for a veto.
UEA worked extensively with Senate President Wayne Niederhauser to make improvements to his SB235: Education Modifications, although UEA opposed the final legislation. The legislation requires low-performing schools to create a turnaround committee and, in conjunction with an “independent school turnaround expert”, implement a turnaround plan to improve the school grade based on statewide standardized assessments. If the school grade does not improve within three years, or five years if an extension is granted, the legislation allows for the school to be restructured.
Restructuring of a district school can include contract management, conversion to a charter school or state takeover. Charter schools are also subject to restructuring, which could include closure, transfer to a high performing charter school or transfer to the school district. The legislation rewards low-performing schools for improving their school grade and also creates a school leadership development program to “increase the number of highly effective school leaders capable of initiating, achieving, and sustaining school improvement efforts.” The bill appropriates $8 million.
Assessment and Grading Schools—
Once again the School Grading program, based on statewide standardized assessments, was modified. UEA remains opposed to the grading schools concept, but SB245 made minor improvements such as allowing the State Board of Education to exempt alternative and special needs schools from school grading and instead use an alternative accountability plan. Also affecting assessments, SB204 attempts to clarify a parent’s right to opt a child out of state testing while preventing a “negative impact” to districts, schools and educators “through school grading or employee evaluations due to a student not taking a test”. UEA was opposed to this bill because of its potential impact on teacher use of assessment to support student learning.
This was a relatively quiet session for charter school legislation. The biggest issue was around the Local Replacement funding and how much local districts should contribute. The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee passed a motion to increase the current contribution rate of 25 percent to 50 percent. Many legislators thought this policy change should have happened in a separate bill and therefore when the final budget bill was drafted and passed, this policy change was reversed. Nevertheless, HB119: Charter School Finance Amendments passed both houses. This bill brings every district up to a true 25 percent contribution rate. Look for this issue and other charter school finance issues to be revisited in upcoming sessions.
A bill that gave charter schools an option rather than just closing (SB227) passed. A charter school can voluntarily surrender their charter to the State Charter Board which can then offer the charter to other authorizers.
State School Board Elections—
Five bills were heard this session on the topic of State Board of Education governance. The UEA has consistently supported direct, nonpartisan elections for State School Board members and supported HB186. This bill included non-partisan elections as well as a signature gathering requirement that would allow voters to vet candidates.
Two other proposals got serious traction. SB104 would have made School Board elections partisan, forcing candidates to go through a party nominating process to get on the ballot. The UEA strongly opposed this bill. The bill failed in the House by a significant margin. A proposal to amend the Utah constitution to allow the governor to appoint State School Board members (SB195) was also heard. However, under this same proposal the 2016 elections would be partisan, with the constitutional amendment “yes or no” vote on the same ballot. Because of this partisan element, the UEA also opposed this bill.
HB186 passed the House by a significant margin. In the Senate, the bill was substituted and completely changed to mirror SB195. The House refused to concur with the Senate amendments and the bill was sent to a Conference Committee. The Conference Committee reached an agreement that would have partisan State School Board elections in 2016 and a vote on a constitutional change to have a governor-appointed school board in that same election. The Conference Committee report was accepted by the Senate, but soundly defeated by the House in a voice vote. No other proposal to change school board elections passed the legislature, so the current process will stand for now. However, there is still a court case pending. It is possible the Judiciary could intervene on this issue and determine a process.
Campaigns and Elections—
Last year's SB54, known as the Count My Vote compromise, passed the Legislature. The Utah Republican Party has since filed suit against the law and actively lobbied this session for a number of bills designed to tweak and/or neuter SB54. Proposed bills included a constitutional amendment that would give political parties the sole authority to pick their nominees, a ban on unaffiliated voters from voting in party primaries, and a delay in implementing provisions of SB54 until 2018. All of these efforts failed and the Count My Vote compromise stands in place. This means starting in 2016 candidates will have the option of either participating in their Party’s caucus system or use the alternative route to collect signatures and get a spot on the ballot. The UEA supports the principles of Count My Vote because all Utahns should be able to participate in the political process, not just party insiders.
Another bill (SB137) prohibits the use of an email of a public entity for political purposes or to advocate for or against a ballot proposition. The first offense can be fined at $250. Further offenses may include a fine of $1000. “Political purposes” is defined as “an act done with the intent or in a way to influence or intend to influence, directly or indirectly, any person to refrain from voting or to vote for or against any candidate for public office at any caucus, political convention, primary or election.”
With more than 120 bills dealing directly or indirectly with education, the UEA Legislative Team had its hands full. Here are a few education bills of note and their final status: