SALT LAKE CITY — Less than two weeks into the 2021 general session of the Utah Legislature, state lawmakers answered the question that some years has been debated into the waning days of their work: How much would they appropriate to public education?
The matter was resolved with the passage of SB1 on Jan. 28. That base budget included more than $400 million in new education funding, a 6% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, which is the building block of education funding in Utah, and funding for enrollment growth and inflation.
It also included $1,500 bonuses plus benefits for teachers, acknowledging the additional demands of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers also appropriated funding for $1,000 bonuses for school employees such as school nutrition workers, custodians and maintenance personnel.
"It's not been a cliffhanger this year around the funding of public education because we made it a priority. We kept all of the commitments around Amendment G and I'm excited about that," said Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden.
Last year, a plan to fund public education came down to the wire after marathon, closed-door negotiations over a possible constitutional amendment that would allow income tax revenues, then solely earmarked for education, to be used for other purposes.
In the end, a deal was struck. If Utah voters approved Amendment G to the Utah Constitution, which would allow income tax to also cover services for children and people with disabilities, then lawmakers would abide by certain guarantees.
One of them was funding an education stabilization account by $127 million intended to tide over public schools during times of economic downturn. Voters approved the constitutional amendment and lawmakers delivered as promised.
All told, SB1 appropriates more than $6 billion to public education from state, federal and local sources, which lawmakers called "historic."
I think this is the most money we've ever put into a budget for education in a single year.
–Gov. Spencer Cox
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, meeting with reporters on the final night of the legislative session, said passing the base budget early "made it so we weren't fighting over that the last week of the session. Usually we're in the last week and we're like, 'Well we promised education this, but everybody's trying to get a piece of it,'" Cox said.
Better yet, the education budget included record funding, Cox said.
"I think this is the most money we've ever put into a budget for education in a single year," he said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said dealing with the bulk of the public education budget at the beginning of the session "took a huge burden off so that everybody could focus their efforts on funding programs and getting good policy in place. So we feel like we've had a great partnership and in the end it benefited students and our educators, so we're happy."
But the session was far from conflict free.
Dixie State name change
A bill to launch a process to change the name of Dixie State University pitted the House of Representatives against the Utah Senate. HB278 passed handily in the House after lengthy, emotional debate. The bill the House sent to the Senate explicitly said the university's new name could not include the term Dixie and it created a public process to come to another recommendation.
But the bill stalled in the Senate, with some Senate leaders expressing concern there had not been enough public input from residents in southern Utah to move ahead with HB278 as written.
Discussions about the name have been going on for decades but intensified following protests across the country over George Floyd's death last summer while in police custody in Minnesota. Earlier this year, Intermountain Healthcare changed the name of its hospital in the area from Dixie Regional Medical Center to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital.
Some cried cancel culture while others said students' job and graduate school prospects were being harmed by a name that people outside of Utah perceive negatively.
Earlier this week, the Senate approved a substitute version of HB278, which doesn't expressly exclude a university name with Dixie in it but says the state will appropriate $500,000 to help preserve the institution's history if the DSU trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education recommend a name that does not include the name Dixie.
Some House members balked at the new language but most voted to concur with the new bill, which calls for the university trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education to form a committee to recommend a name for the university. The group will include students, university personnel, residents of southwestern Utah and institutional partners.
The trustees and higher education board are expected to make a recommendation to the Legislative Management Committee on or before Nov. 1, which means state lawmakers could be conceivably acting on a name change for the university during their 2022 general session.
General session amid pandemic
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said the session was unusual in the respect that most of the association's legislative priorities were fulfilled in the first two weeks.
"What a historic collaboration. You know, when we work together we get a lot done. I was so happy to have the bulk of the budget worked out so early in the session and so that we could focus on other issues," she said.
She expressed "gratitude for the progress in public education funding, and what it meant for a session we weren't having to fight until the end, and what it meant for promises being kept. I think it was just outstanding."
Dickson said legislative staff, working through the logistics of the ongoing pandemic, provided several avenues for the public and State School Board staff to safely participate in committee meetings, whether they were at the Capitol, at their workplaces or at home.
"It allowed the Legislature to hear from educators and our staff members that they normally wouldn't hear from in testimony in committees. It really opened up and provided an opportunity for more voices and different voices to be heard testifying for or against bills. I thought that kind of dialogue and debate was very healthy," she said.
Concerns about local control of schools
But there were also moments of frustration over legislation that encroached on local control of schools, Matthews said.
For instance, SB107, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, was substituted seven times and went to a conferences committee twice to hammer out differences before it was passed.
What started as a bill that could have allowed the State School Board to reallocate the Salt Lake City School District's state funding to other school districts, even private schools, if it did not resume an in-school instruction option by Feb. 8 — which it did — morphed into legislation prioritizing in-person instruction in K-12 public schools but also at public colleges and universities. It calls on health departments to do more to support schools' "test to stay" efforts rather than shifting entire schools to online learning when COVID-19 cases mount.
Recently though, numbers of COVID-19 cases statewide have plummeted and as of Friday, nearly 817,000 Utahns had received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine.
Matthews said the Utah Education Association opposed the bill in all of its iterations because it did not respect local control of education.
"It's shifted a focus away from what we really need to be concentrating on in public education, which is our students. How we can bridge and recover and get back into that face-to-face learning that we all know is best for our students and support our educators who have been through a lot in this pandemic?" she said.
Other legislative initiatives
One bill passed by lawmakers will allow a "mental health day" to be recognized as a legitimate excuse for a school absence. Another bill that was approved means families will not have to produce a doctor's note if they are absent from school because of illness or injury.
Dickson said she was especially heartened by legislation that keyed on the state's most vulnerable children, "looking at equity and trying to improve outcomes for students through thinking holistically about what their needs are."
For example, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored HB345 to further refine the training of school resource officers to help ensure they develop and support successful relationships with students and know the parameters of searching and questioning students on school property.
Lawmakers also passed HB425, which creates a charter school reserve account to pay outstanding debts of a charter school that closes. Starting in July, all public charter schools in Utah will contribute $2 per student enrolled annually until the account reaches $3 million.
Debate over adding 'consent' to sex education instruction
Some of the most contentious debate centered on legislation to include instruction on consent in the sex education offered to junior high and high school students.
But HB177, sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, ran into opposition, some of it fueled by a campaign led by State School Board member Natalie Cline, who distributed an email that alleges a video from Planned Parenthood would be shared with students as part of the consent training.
Moss called Cline's claims baseless and "dangerous."
Even after removing language about consent, HB177 was defeated in the House by a vote of 31-39 vote.