Sex education, educator accountability and fears over federal intrusion into Utah schools dominated discussions of public education at the Capitol this year, often overshadowing budget talks.
Lawmakers decided to give schools $36 million to pay for 12,500 new students expected in the fall and boost per pupil spending by more than 1 percent, though that money likely will be just enough to cover rising retirement costs.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said he is pleased to see the additional money, but warned that it could be difficult for districts to give teachers raises, as other rising costs could eat up the per pupil spending increase.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association president, said the UEA also is grateful for the increases, but disappointed that lawmakers chose to fund a number of education bills to put money toward different types of education software programs rather than put more money toward teacher cost-of-living increases.
Lawmakers, however, spent much of their time this session focusing on other, sometimes more controversial issues.
Like sex education.
Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, succeeded in passing a bill to allow Utah school districts to skip sex education and to make sure those districts that choose to keep it teach abstinence-only.
Opponents argued that parents already have a choice under current law, which requires parents to opt their children into the class if they want them to participate. Proponents, however, argued that instruction in contraception simply doesn't belong in schools, and abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and disease.
As of Thursday evening, more than 15,000 people had already signed an online petition asking Gov. Gary Herbert to veto the bill.
Lawmakers also wrestled over questions about new academic standards called the Common Core. The state school board adopted the standards, which were developed as part of a states-led initiative, about a year and a half ago.
Some conservative groups and lawmakers questioned whether the state could lose local control over education by implementing them. State education leaders, and even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, assured them that wasn't the case. A resolution, SCR13, asking the state school board to "reconsider" its decision to adopt the Core died for lack of action in the House Thursday night.
Lawmakers also made significant changes to educator employment laws this session, passing SB64 crafted by freshman Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, after months of meeting with education groups and teachers.
The bill would require school administrators to receive yearly evaluations and eventually tie 15 percent of their pay to performance. It would also create new performance categories for district employees, including teachers, based on annual evaluations and tie those ratings to scheduled raises and continued employment.