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Utah Schools Face Losing Federal Funds

Heidi Mathews-UEA President

Federal funding of education for Utah schools is potentially at stake due to changes in standardized testing guidelines. The Our Schools Now education funding initiative will not be on the November ballot. A compromise gas tax increase measure will be there instead. And, Utah has changed Teacher licensure requirements to make it easier to enter the teaching profession.  Carolyn Murray has this update:

Long time Park City Teacher and Utah Education Association President, Heidi Mathews says federal standardized tests originally had the benefit of identifying underserved schools and leveling the playing field for students. She says it was never the intention to use the tests to grade schools or evaluate teachers.

“The tests were designed to look at the system and assess how the system is supporting the most disadvantaged students. We are using them to assess individual students and schools performance which was not the intention of this type of assessment. When we have so many people opting out of them, I think it calls into questions their usefulness.”

Mathews says the state is at risk of losing 10 to 15 % funding for education due changes in federal funding guidelines if they don’t meet the requirements of the Every Child Succeeds Act. ESSA requires that at least 95% participate in standardized tests.  She says the assessments used by teachers in the classroom are helpful for evaluating student progress but that’s not the case with standardized tests.   

The Our Schools Now advocates and the State Legislature reached a compromise late in the 2018 session.  Utahns will vote on a 10 cent gas tax which will be used to offset the education funding promised by the compromise.  Mathews says it’s a great start and is envied by many states that are fighting for education funding and teacher pay increases.

“When the compromise was reached it was specifically stated this was a compromise to take the Our Schools Now initiative off the ballot. In exchange, there was a commitment to inflation and growth for the next five years which is huge to not have to fight for that every single year. Secondly they included equalization throughout our state with new revenue going toward that equalization. The final piece of the Our Schools Now compromise is what will be decided in November.  That is to fund education in exchange for a 10 cent gas tax. So in my mind, is it enough money? It is a great start and it is a collaborative start.”

Mathews says passing the gas tax in November is critical for the future of public education in Utah.

“The Governor is 100% behind the Our Schools Now Compromise, question one on the ballot. The consequences of this not passing, I think are pretty significant. We have a chronically underfunded public education system in Utah.  We have the lowest per pupil expenditure.  We’ve already seen the damage in terms of…we have a significant teacher shortage, disparities around our state that can’t be ignored.  If this doesn’t pass, we are going to have to take a different tact to fulfill our promise of public education.”

Mathews says even with the increase, Utah is near the bottom in national per pupil funding. Because the state is experiencing severe teacher shortages, the Legislature has made it easier to license by not requiring degrees in Pedagogy.  She says it puts a burden on mid-career and veteran teachers. 

“Yes, we’ve seen a significant increase in starting salaries but many areas across our state, it’s just in their starting salaries.  It hasn’t made their way to the mid-career teachers, which we are losing because in addition to their salaries not keeping pace, our mid-career and veteran teachers are having to pick up a lot more of the mentoring of people who are coming into education who are not as prepared because they have come through different routes.”

Mathews says the legislature allows many paths to licensure and the teachers who are coming into districts through alternate paths are leaving at two and a half times the rate of those with education degrees.

“It has the potential for solidifying the potential of our teacher shortages in allowing underprepared teachers to come into the classroom at the same rate and without any requirements that will move us forward.  Why come in prepared with the University training that costs a lot of money if you can come in another route.  Yet, those teachers are leaving at such a fast rate.”

She says content is just one part of what teachers must know in order to be effective in the classroom.

“…pedogogy and knowing how to teach.  Also we have so many special needs for students.  What if you have a student in your class with a learning disability? You don’t know anything about recognizing that or if you have a student in your class who is a Special Ed student and you don’t know anything about the law. We need to have our teachers who are fully prepared on the first day of class for our students and not learning on the job.”

SAGE tests will be replaced this year by a new platform for third through 8th grades. Ninth and 10th grades will be using ASPIRE which is more like the ACT and which is now taken by all 11th graders.   

Park City resident, Heidi Mathews plans to run for a second three year term as President of the Utah Education Association. 

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