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A new organization is banging the drum for public education in Utah, aiming at providing support for educators and being a fresh resource for lawmakers on education issues.

Leaders of the Utah Education Association, the state's 18,000-member teachers union, say the new group, the Utah Council of Educators, has ties to school voucher advocates, while some lawmakers say the group could be the key to establishing healthy dialogue between legislators and educators in the state.

"Unfortunately there is a real polarization between the Legislature, generally, and UEA ... there's a history of battles there," said Gregory Bell, R-Fruit Heights.

Bell said the National Education Association, with which the UEA is affiliated, and the American Federation of Teachers, whose local affiliate is AFT-Utah, have taken some pretty liberal positions that are different than mainstream Utah politics.

"I think a moderate influence on the Hill — giving the Legislature credit for what they do and yet bringing to attention things like class sizes and teachers' salaries — could help in opening up dialogue," Bell said. "We'll have to see what their outlook is, but at first blush it looks like they will be pretty helpful."

According to Dave Barrett, UTCE founder and president, the organization's goals include endearing people to public education and the positive things that are going on while making them aware of what resources are needed.

It also wants to educate legislators on what is actually going on in the schools and provide professional support for educators along with liability insurance for teachers.

Barrett said UTCE is far more representative of the typical Utah educator than other organizations affiliated with the national labor unions. "We are teachers, not teamsters," he said.

UTCE's parent organization is the Association of American Educators, a non-union, nonpartisan national group.

Barrett said the UTCE is careful not to get mired in controversial and divisive issues unrelated to public education and does not engage in strikes, walkouts and "nonsensical attempts at political coercion." Nor does it endorse politicians.

But UEA spokesman Mark Mickelson said the AAE receives contributions from pro-voucher and anti-labor groups.

"We don't believe that Utah educators are aware of that, and given those facts we believe that educators probably would not join an association like this if they knew that the funding came from groups hostile to public education," Mickelson said.

Barrett said UTCE does not currently support tuition tax credits for private school vouchers and said the claim is the UEA's attempt to discredit the organization.

"This is just their accusation of our national affiliate — if that was on our agenda we would certainly want to make that known to our teacher members," Barrett said. "The reality is we are completely supportive of our public school system and want to bolster and strengthen it.

"I never realized how threatening the Utah Council of Educators would be to the UEA. Apparently we have uncovered some very real insecurities in their leadership ability and in their confidence to represent Utah teachers," he said.

Other UTCE goals include working to recognize the efforts of career educators by restructuring salaries to reflect the value of education and attracting more qualified individuals to the profession.

They also want It also wants to reach out to minority groups. Barrett said sometimes minority communities feel disconnected and UTCE aims to help them become more participatory in the education process.

"If you do what's right for Utah families and students, you're also doing what's right for Utah educators — this means smaller class sizes, greater resources for kids and improving working conditions and increasing salaries for educators," Barrett said.

"By doing this, we will attract the very best teachers in America. We expect great things to happen in education over the next several years. This is an exciting time to be an educator."

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