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A bill that would have penalized schools for not giving equal access to all teacher groups failed by a wide margin during last legislative session.
But lawmakers resurrected the issue Thursday, saying they want to make sure all groups not just the Utah Education Association have equal opportunities to reach teachers. The Administrative Rules Committee held the discussion despite claims from some educators that it's a nonissue.
"We have been informed that some school districts still are not ensuring equal access," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who chairs the committee.
Ultimately, State Deputy Superintendent Martell Menlove told lawmakers he would speak with the state school board to see if the access issue can be addressed through means other than legislation, such as rules or assurances signed by district leaders.
The original bill, SB82, would have fined schools $1,000 for failure to follow a law passed in 2007 that mandates all teacher groups be given equal access to schools and teachers.
Bill sponsor Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, argued then that the bill was needed to make sure organizations competing with the Utah Education Association (UEA) weren't shut out of schools. At the time, members of the Association of American Educators Utah, a non-union employee association, told lawmakers they were being treated unfairly, a claim district representatives refuted.
In March, the House rejected the bill 18-51, after some lawmakers said they felt it was unnecessary and overly harsh.
But Stephenson and Madsen, who also sits on the committee, said Thursday that some way to ensure the law is enforced is still needed.
Stephenson said he believes not as many new teachers are joining the UEA as in the past because "there is a rise of other groups that profess to be more professional groups than labor groups."
"It seems to me we ought to be ensuring our teaching professionals have the opportunity to affiliate with whatever group they choose," Stephenson said. "I hope we don't have to come back this time next year and say, 'We really mean it.'"
Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, said she believes "the public is very concerned that when we expend tax dollars that we don't use the government to show favoritism toward one entity over another."
But Newbold also said she thinks a complaint process is needed so reports of violations are "not anecdotal and either we have an issue or we don't have an issue."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said Thursday she isn't sure why lawmakers are still talking about access.
"I just don't know how big of a problem this is," Moss said. "I mean I think it's fine to have safeguards, but as I listen to this, where is this happening?"
Kory Holdaway, UEA government relations director, said he'd also like to see "solid facts" in the future so lawmakers and the UEA can respond "in a meaningful way." Holdaway said he hopes the discussion with the deputy superintendent Thursday puts the issue to rest, eliminating the need for another bill next year.
He said the UEA is "not afraid of competition," but is concerned that legislation like SB82 could hurt associations if districts, in an attempt to be cautious, err on the side of giving less access to everyone.
"We hope the legislation or assurances required don't have that cooling effect that some would like to have happen with our association, particularly because of the effectiveness we've had in representing teachers," Holdaway said.
Madsen, however, said it was never the intent of his bill to hurt teachers' ability to access any group.
"The intent of this initiative has been to equalize opportunity, not to equalize misery," Madsen said. "We don't want the end result to be that it hurts everyone."
Charity Smith, Utah membership director of the Association of American Educators Utah, said Thursday she was happy to see lawmakers continue to work on the issue. She said it continues to be difficult for her to get into schools to spread word of the organization to teachers.
"I am pleased that the conversation is moving forward and that choice is being promoted for all teachers," Smith said.
"Really, if the law is not being violated, then there's no harm in implementing some regulations."