Key education issues facing Utah’s new governor, Legislature include demands for more funding, pandemic help

More money is all but certain, but there are still some tricky issues.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marci Weatherspoon works on a reading assignment with Myla Rider in her first grade class at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Statewide, just 46% of incoming first graders came to school this fall at or above benchmark proficiency in early literacy. Crescent Elementary has had success in getting their kids back on level by doing things like recording lessons for students to watch while in class and the teacher then works one on one with students who need more help.

Usually, the biggest education battle during the legislative session is over the budget — will lawmakers boost funding and by how much? That part of the process was (mostly) taken off the table last month when leaders voted to pump $400 million of new education funding into the base budget at the start of the 2021 session.

But the education community and lawmakers have a shifting landscape to navigate, with a new governor for the first time in more than a decade and schools struggling with the mammoth task of educating students during a pandemic. Plus a number of new faces on Capitol Hill will help shape education policy for the next year and beyond.

New administration — new direction?

While Gov. Spencer Cox has logged just a few days in Utah’s top elected state office, he’s been on Utah’s Capitol Hill since 2013, for one year as a legislator, followed by seven as lieutenant governor. Stepping out from the shadow of his predecessor, Gary Herbert, Cox will be looking to forge a new path. But some in the education community hope that doesn’t mean a radical departure from recent history.

“We’re looking forward to working with him closely,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “It hasn’t always been a perfect alignment, that’s for sure. But we have always had access to the governor’s office, and in our conversations were able to relate how policy decisions would impact students and educators.

“We have great hopes for that continued relationship with the new administration,” she added.

The biggest shift discernible so far comes in the form of a new education adviser. Tami Pyfer, who was Herbert’s education adviser, stepped down in September after six years on the job. Cox has tapped former Utah State School Board member Brittney Cummins to fill that spot.

“On the campaign trail, Gov.-elect Cox spoke about student equity and the importance that students anywhere in the state have the same access to opportunities,” Cummins said of educational priorities for the new administration.

Cox also raised the issue when presenting his budget recommendations, proposing $8 million for a small district-based boost in the basic funding formula for school districts in rural Utah.

While it doesn’t appear in his budget document, the governor suggested that one of the biggest changes he’s seeking is a reexamination of the local school property tax in an effort to ensure students from more affluent areas don’t have better opportunities than those in poorer ones.

“The tax burden is not being fairly distributed throughout the state and we are recommending we fix this by putting a greater emphasis on the statewide property tax for school,” Cox said during his budget news conference last week. “We need to do better to ensure tax burdens and student funding are more equitable no matter the ZIP code.”

He recognized that’s a “heavy lift” in his first session as governor but said there seemed to be “more willingness” among lawmakers to discuss it.

Lawmakers made a big show of support for education in December, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the schools’ budget. That included a one-time bonus of $1,500 for licensed educators and $1,000 for non-administrative personnel in schools.

That new spending — included in Cox’s budget — fulfills a promise made by lawmakers last year to significantly boost funding if educators supported a constitutional amendment loosening the earmark on income tax revenues so they could be used for social services as well as education.

That amendment passed in November.

“This is the money they promised us to take away the earmark,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and a public school teacher. “This is the money they were planning to spend on education during the pre-pandemic time. So, did they really fix it?”

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, legislators were swimming in cash and proposed a 6% increase in the weighted pupil unit, (WPU) the basic unit of school funding, as part of a deal with educators over the constitutional amendment. Revenues fell significantly because of the virus, and lawmakers cut spending across the board, and reduced the WPU increase from 6% to 1.8%, with a promise to gradually restoring it over a number of years.

Instead, buoyed by a rapidly improving economic picture, lawmakers recently voted to do it now — resetting education to where it was supposed to be pre-pandemic.

“This really didn’t put us ahead. We’re still last in per-pupil funding. We have data showing our kids are falling behind, and we still need to address that,” Riebe said.

Part of the agreement with teachers included funding student enrollment growth and adding inflationary increases at the beginning of the session in the base budget rather than trying to find the money at the end of the session when competition for dollars grows fierce and unpredictable. This year that increase amounted to $90 million.

“That’s something we haven’t had in public education funding before,” said Mathews.

Still, final budget negotiations could get tricky. The UEA wants lawmakers to add another 4% to the WPU, which is more than $130 million dollars on top of the $400 million in new spending already endorsed.

Typically, education is an acute focus during the session, with dozens of bills jockeying for the attention of lawmakers. A recent tally of the education-related bills already on tap for the 2021 session put the count so far at more than 50 bills in the works, with many more likely to come. Last year the UEA tracked more than 100 education-related pieces of legislation. Add to that onslaught of bills a once-in-a-century pandemic that completely upended Utah’s public education system and lawmakers may be tempted to make big changes.

“I hope we just kind of press the pause button on making radical changes this year. We need to address the urgent issues that are in front of us right now,” said Matthews. “We need to double down and support those things that we know will make the biggest difference for our schools.”

Those issues include expanding access to technology for students in underserved areas, a problem that was exacerbated when schools moved from in-person to virtual teaching.

Cox’s budget plan includes a recommended $50 million for “pandemic response efforts to improve broadband access to help bridge the digital divide [and] reengage students.”

It also includes some money to begin attempting to address funding disparities in rural areas of the state.

That idea to address pressing issues rather than taking up sweeping new initiatives may have some backing from the incoming administration. Cummins agreed that 2021 may be a good time for lawmakers to pause and take a breath when it comes to schools.

“I do think this particular session would be a good time to not move forward with new, untested ideas. This would be a good year to put a lot of intense change on hold while addressing the needs for students to access quality education across the state,” said Cummins.

Will school choice be a big focus?

One issue to pay attention to is whether lawmakers move to expand school choice options for students.

In the Senate, a freshman lawmaker, Sen.-elect John Johnson, was named the chairman of the powerful Senate Education Committee. Johnson did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but his social media posts indicate he is a strong supporter of school choice, advocating for increased competition in education. Johnson appears to have locked down and scrubbed his social media, either deleting pro-school choice posts or making them private.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, another strong supporter of school choice, appointed himself to the Senate Education Committee.

The incoming Cox administration also has some advocates of school choice in key positions. Cummins, who will help Cox shape education policy, has advocated for increasing education choice during her time on the state school board, and Lt. Gov.-elect Deidre Henderson has been a school choice supporter.

“We’re thrilled [Gov.] Cox appointed Brittany Cummins as education adviser,” said Royce Van Tassel, executive director of the Utah Association of Charter Schools. “She’s been a charter school chair, and she’s worked in the Granite School District, so she understands both the small nuances and big picture. It was an excellent choice.”

Cummins did not directly respond to questions about whether the Cox administration would strongly advocate for school choice, but Cox’s spokesperson said in an email statement, “School choice means different things to different people, but the governor is generally supportive of innovation and opportunity in education.”

Reibe, who has been a classroom teacher since 2001, is wary that school choice will become a priority at the expense of the traditional classroom setting.

“90% of our families choose neighborhood schools. Most of our citizens don’t choose charter schools,” she said.

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