With this year’s state legislative session about halfway over, Utah’s top education leader is cautiously optimistic about how funding next school year is looking so far.
With state lawmakers approving a $400 million base budget for education earlier this session, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews says it’s an outstanding start. Lawmakers agreed to fully restore the $140 million in WPU funding that was cut during the 2020 interim special session – as well as fully fund student enrollment growth. The base budget she says also includes a WPU inflation adjustment.
“As you say, it does include some restorations of cuts that were made during the pandemic,” said Matthews. “It includes some holding harmless for enrollment fluctuations for a district, which is especially important during this pandemic. We know those students are going to be coming back. But above all, it really reflected the collaboration of all the education community coming together with the legislature around the constitutional amendments changes that then came with contingent legislation that would assure that the base budget, always includes funding for enrollment growth, that always includes inflationary factor. And then we were also able to fulfill the promise made of the 6% on the weighted people unit. That was cut in the in the pandemic but reinstated in House Bill 5011, in a summer special session. And so all of those funds, and then some, were put into the base budget.”
Included in that funding are $1500 bonuses for teachers and $1000 bonuses for all classified staff. Legislation that threated to use the money set aside for Salt Lake City teachers and give it to private schools because Salt Lake City teachers had not returned to in-person teaching became moot when Salt Lake teachers returned to the classroom Feb. 8th. Matthew expects that teachers should see their bonuses by the end of March.
While funding wasn’t included for bonuses for substitute teachers, Matthews is hopeful that local school districts will find money to pay stipends directly to their subs who have been essential during the pandemic.
One of the bills the UEA is watching is SB 91 which would remove the requirement on the State Board of Education to use a letter grade when assigning a school overall rating.
This is a practice that the UEA has denounced all along. The State Board however will still rate a school’s performance using words like exemplary, commendable, typical development or critical.
“We've been in opposition to letter grades as just being entirely insufficient to capture the complexities of the school and we've been much more focused on having a dashboard of metrics that that give us those indications,” Matthew said.
Matthews is hopeful for some subsequent bills that haven’t been numbered yet but would consider doing away with standardized testing all together.
“We’re really having conversations about if we're going to move these accountability measures as we should,” Matthews said, “should we even really be having these tests at all and what data is going to give us that we don't already know. How much instructional time we are going to give up in order to, you know, traumatize our students once more about learning that they probably in some cases haven't had the opportunity to have. And, to get what? Some data that we don't know is reliable, and certainly won't be used for anything meaningful.”
A bill that Matthews says is totally unnecessary is HB 81 sponsored by Rep Mike Winder that would add mental or behavioral health as a valid excuse for a school absence. Matthews says parents already have the ability to use that as an excused absence. What’s frustrating she says is that lawmakers are spending time debating unnecessary bills instead of working to get the resources targeted to those people who are most struggling.