This year's Legislature was all about sending messages: to Washington D.C., to Democrats (including that smattering of hapless individuals in the two Utah chambers) and, most of all, to the far right wing of the Republican Party where most Utah legislators either make their home or aspire to be recognized. All that is to be expected in an election year.
But most disheartening were the messages sent by the bills, both those passed and those killed, concerning public education. We fear the message is twofold: 1. Conservative legislators intend to continue micromanaging education according to their ideology, and 2. Education is still not the funding priority that it ought to be.
Several sensible bills were the result of the Best Schools Initiative, a Democratic effort to improve Utah's underfunded, overcrowded public schools. None was passed.
While those bills are opportunities lost, one that will pose a real risk to the health and future happiness of Utah children is HB363, which withholds from Utah schoolchildren the facts about sex and their own sexuality that could help them avoid teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Despite the pro-ignorance stand of sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, a Holden Republican, and his legislative and Eagle Forum collaborators, knowledge is the only sure weapon that parents and educators have to arm young people against harmful sexual practices. Pretending that teenagers will have no interest in sex if it is not taught in school is simply asinine. To believe that telling them only to abstain from sex until marriage without explaining in detail the consequences of unprotected sex and the options available is like telling them to just avoid breathing when the air is polluted. It's dishonest and irresponsible and ignores the realities of the world in which our young people live.
HB363 allows, even encourages, school districts to eliminate the rudimentary sex education courses that are allowed. And it prohibits all instruction in the purposes and use of contraception in the schools that continue to offer the classes. Parents who want their children to be educated in this subject and very few withhold permission now will have to pay for private classes.
Democratic Sen. Ben McAdams' SB54 would have increased Utah's last-place per-pupil education expenditure by achieving a funding floor of $750 per student beyond the current Weighted Pupil Unit over a decade, eventually allocating about $450 million more a year to Utah schools.
To maintain the funding floor, the bill would have made two changes in taxing for education: It would dedicate 30 percent of future increases in sales tax revenue to public education, similar to the earmark for transportation passed last year over Gov. Gary Herbert's veto. If gross property valuations were to rise, the bill would freeze the basic property tax levy so it would not be adjusted as it is now, resulting in more education revenue.
McAdams' best idea, but one that was doomed in Utah's conservative Legislature, would freeze the value of the income tax personal exemption at a current dollar amount, ending inflation adjustments. Eventually, large families would pay more for their children's education, instead of putting the largest burden on the system and paying the least.
SB54 died in the Senate Education Committee.
McAdams also attempted to introduce a bill to require more transparency when legislation is proposed that would drain money from the education fund. We could almost hear the snickers as Republicans ignored it.
Sen. Karen Morgan's SB31, which outlined a much-needed plan to reduce the number of children in kindergarten through third-grade classes, passed the Senate but was killed in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. It would have capped class sizes at 18 for kindergarten, 20 for first grade, 22 in second grade and 24 in third grade.
Although it's in these early grades when children learn, or fail to learn, the necessary basics of reading and math, the committee nevertheless listened to those who said it did not focus on academics.
That is pure nonsense. Nothing helps a young student more than one-on-one instruction in the first stages of education.
Morgan, after 16 years in the Senate, is retiring after this session.
To its credit, the Legislature passed a bill mandating evaluations for teachers and administrators and tying a portion of any potential pay raise to the results of those evaluations.
The bill was rightly called a landmark because it was written with input from legislators, parents and educators across the state. Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, spent months collecting feedback from all parties. Osmond appears to be genuinely interested in hearing what in-the-trenches educators have to say about education.
Most other legislators are far too content to pass judgment on what they see as the failures of public education from their perch at the Capitol, evidenced by the short shrift given another Osmond bill that would have encouraged legislators to spend time in classrooms. It was dead on arrival.
For higher education, this legislative session was brighter. A bill to eliminate tenure for university professors died thanks to those who pointed out the bill's devastating effects on the quality of instruction.
And HB284 to give the governor total authority over higher education evolved into a joint resolution supporting a constitutional amendment that would do the same but which has little chance of going any further.