The Utah Education Association was pleased with the results for schools from this year’s legislative session, but UEA’s president says there are always areas to work for improvement.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill funded education to the tune of nearly $5.6 billion, increased the WPU by four percent, and have funded the Teacher Student Success Act to an amount approaching $100 million.
Still UEA President Heidi Matthews, a Park City resident, said there are three areas where they always strive for improvement.
“One, what are the working conditions of our educators? Because those are the learning conditions of our students," Matthews explained. "We look through the lens of elevating our profession and through kind of being that last line of social justice and equity for our students. Making sure that all students have equal opportunity or equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes as well.”
She said they're pleased overall with the states funding.
“That has allowed for a number of districts to make some promising steps in salary increases," Matthews continued. "Particularly on the front end of attracting people into the profession. We see a number of districts in the valley with starting salaries approaching $50,000, some over, which is great progress. Still looking for ways that we can make teaching a sustainable career. That means investing along the continuum of salary and not just in those earlier years.”
Matthew said they are also happy to see funding for mental health services and enticements to draw people into the teaching profession.
“With the transfer of the TH Bell loan forgiveness program which was for educators entering into the classroom," Matthews said. "It was kind of a conditional loan forgiveness program that impacted I believe there are about 200 T H Bell scholarships per year. That was transformed into a scholarship program, which we see evidence that that is more attractive to potential future educators. To get them get them into the classroom. There was a really great investment in mental health support. The health and wellbeing of our students with the investment about $30 million in mental health support. Representative Eliason’s bill that is to go for counselors, social workers, again supporting our students.”
She added the funding is able to provide a 1/2 time professional at each school in the state. They were disappointed due to a bill that did not make it through the legislature entirely.
“We were very disappointed that House Bill 198, which was school grading accountability, was not heard in the Senate," Matthews explained. "It passed almost unanimously in the house. That was to eliminate the really blaming and shaming process of putting a single letter grade on a school. That is especially concerning this year as we've had so many problems with our standardized testing, with the RISE format.”
Statistics still show that Utah is the lowest in per pupil funding in the nation. Matthews admitted you do have to factor in the large number of students in Utah.
“When we are continually seeing that our investment in public education doesn't even move us ahead of our neighboring state of Idaho; I think we have to pause and say OK where are we not fulfilling our promise to the students in this state? We clearly love children in the state of Utah," Matthews continued. "We have many of them, but that does increase our obligation to be able to fulfill that promise of public education.”
Finally, she said they were concerned about HB 441 aimed at revamping the state’s tax structure which lawmakers deferred for further discussion.
“By constitution, income taxes go to public education," Matthews said. "That should mean that all of the income taxes go to public education, but there's been some ability since 1996 with the addition of higher Ed to be able to kind of shift those things around. So, going into this tax restructure we are looking to ensure that any tax restructure must include ongoing and significant investments in public education. It must give resources to address our student needs that are growing, and it must give adequate resources to be able to address the teacher shortage and make education a sustainable career.”