SALT LAKE CITY — Compromise and collaboration made for a quiet legislative session on big-picture issues for education.
But overshadowing what many saw as a turning point in cooperation among educators and lawmakers was a controversial bill dealing with sex education.
Generally along party lines, both chambers dominated by Republicans passed HB363, which mandates Utah sex education courses teach an abstinence-only curriculum and bans instruction on contraceptives. Opponents called it "big government" interfering with parental rights and ignoring the consequences of teen pregnancy, while supporters said the topics of contraception and sexual intercourse should be taught in the home — not the school room.
Deon Turley, education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said the PTA is planning to write a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert, urging him to veto the sex education changes. An online petition to veto the measure also began circulating shortly after the bill's passage and by press time had collected more than 13,000 signatures.
Herbert said he would not be swayed by mass email efforts or other campaigns. He said his decision would be based on what is "good policy for the state of Utah."
"This is an important issue," he said. "We want to work through it carefully before we make a decision."
The State Board of Education had not taken an official position on the bill, but State Superintendent Larry Shumway added that decisions on topics like sex education are best made at the district level.
Approximately 130 bills dealing with public and higher education in Utah were introduced, affecting everything from professional development to classroom curriculum. The bill that garnered widespread praise from lawmakers and education stakeholders was SB64, which establishes performance-based pay and evaluations for public education employees. The bill was sponsored by freshman Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan.
Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh described the bill as a milestone, commending Osmond for his efforts in conducting hundreds of interviews with teachers and parents before drafting the bill. She said Osmond's bill set the tone for a year of unprecedented collaboration.
"I think we're turning a corner," she said.
Turley had similar remarks, saying the PTA had a generally positive reaction to the session. He also spoke favorably of the collaborative efforts of Osmond and other lawmakers.
"We're hoping that will become a trend and more legislators will do their homework beforehand," she said.
Turley disagreed with some bills, specifically a Senate resolution urging the State Board of Education to reconsider adoption of the common core curriculum standards. She said the resolution was poorly written and gave credence to misleading statements, such as language that implies the state may be giving up its educational autonomy.
Shumway also commented on the common core standards, reasserting the commitment of the State School Board and dismissing many of the concerns of lawmakers.
"I have read these standards," he said. "I think they're right for Utah students."
But educators were generally pleased with the funding lawmakers approved for education in Utah, typically ranked among the lowest in the nation for per pupil funding. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, estimated between $110 million and $115 million would be added to the $3.5 billion base education budget signed by the governor in February, including a $6.7 million expense for statewide adaptive testing and $800,000 for an expansion of the dual immersion program.
Shumway said the majority of the Board of Education's priorities received full or partial funding. He said it is the first time in several years that growth was fully funded and added that he would give lawmakers an "A-minus" for focusing on priorities and not special projects or "stocking-stuffers."
"We were pleased that the Legislature was able to restrain itself," he said. "Generally, given the resources that the Legislature had available, we feel very good."
Noticeably absent from the budget were salary increases for educators.
"We recognize our Legislature has a difficult task," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "We are encouraged by the fact that they did fund Social Security, retirement and growth."
She was disappointed, however, that a cost of living increase for state employees was not extended to teachers. She said, the education community had been promised salary increases if they came to the table with reform, as they did with SB64.
"We have millions of dollars out there going to specific vendors and meanwhile our teachers are here without a cost of living increase," she said.
Suicide prevention training for public school teachers passed both chambers with overwhelming majorities. Support fizzled, though, for an education reform bill that would have set a cap on kindergarten through third-grade class sizes after concerns mounted about the costs it would place on school districts.
Among the bills that alter school curriculum are HB156 — a reform bill that removes unnecessary code from the state statute and creates the option for high school students to take an opt-out test to satisfy the financial literacy graduation requirement — and SB178, which extends the life of the Electronic High School.
Gallagher-Fishbaugh specifically mentioned the Electronic High School changes as valuable legislation. She said those bills are positive steps by the legislature, but added that there are still bills being presented that limit options at the local level.
"We want local control," she said. "We want those districts who know their students to be making decisions."
Another bill, SB284, allows colleges and universities to charge high school students for concurrent enrollment credit — up to $30 per credit hour. Shumway expressed concern that the fee would limit opportunities for students, especially in rural areas where concurrent enrollment is a significant part of the curriculum.
Dave Buhler, associate commissioner of public affairs for the Utah System of Higher Education, said time will tell how much money higher education institutions receive from the fee but he added that the fee may also make students more purposeful in their pursuit of college credit.
Buhler said he is encouraged by the Legislature providing additional funding to higher education, for which funding had been cut 14 percent since 2008. Higher education will receive a 3 percent boost this year, totaling $19.6 million.
"We're happy they're addressing our top priorities," he said. "We hope they'll be able to do more in the future."
The University of Utah received some help in the form of $22 million for improvements to its infrastructure. It's less than half of the $50 million originally requested, but Buhler called it a "good start."
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company