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With the 2019 general legislative session completed, a policy dissection is in order. So, what was accomplished in Utah education policy? The answer: A good chunk of work.

With the 2019 general legislative session completed, a policy dissection is in order. So, what was accomplished in Utah education policy? The answer: A good chunk of work.

What work is still left to do? Ditto.

Educators

The Legislature is ever concerned with teachers. Undoubtedly, the 4 percent increase in weighted pupil unit will be seen as a boon for teachers, since this may be used to increase their salaries.

And the companion legislation to 2018’s tax hike for schools — the Teacher and Student Success Act — was passed, allowing 25 percent of account funds (40 percent in some circumstances) to be used for teacher salaries as well. Better compensation may help improve the profession’s leaking pipeline, but the problem may be more complex than money.

Which is why this year, to combat the aforementioned teacher shortage — thanks to the passage of the Public Education Exit Survey — the state board of education will begin receiving data on why educators are leaving the profession. Survey results, we can assume, will be used to help make more informed policies for attracting and retaining the best teachers. For similar reasons, the Legislature passed a bill to extend the STEM salary supplement to teachers who have been teaching in the STEM fields for 10 years or more, regardless of certification. Future opportunities may lie in expanding certification for those who want to become teachers as well as finding merit-based ways to earn more in the classroom.

Accountability

At its core, accountability in education is whether a parent is satisfied with their child’s education. But so long as we have a state accountability system and a statewide assessment, we should make these tools of transparency and choice. Thankfully the Legislature avoided gutting the state accountability system of its easy-to-understand A-F grades (similar to a student’s report card). No statewide accountability system is perfect, but the rankings it generates should at least be consumable by the public. Otherwise, what is it for?

In a fairly controversial move, the Legislature passed a bill that allows the statewide assessment to improve a student’s grade or to demonstrate competency, if so desired by the student and parent. The statewide test opt-out is in full force, but some — to their chagrin — still see this policy as encouraging students to take the statewide test. But for those who like the idea of giving parents and students alternatives for how to use a test to its greatest advantage, the policy may be a good thing.

Going forward, we should continue to expand options for how students can use the statewide assessment, like using a section of it as pass/fail full credit for a particular course, in the spirit of competency-based models. The Legislature could also consider creating a menu of state assessments so local education agencies can decide what works best for their school (similar to Arizona’s policy).

Options

Speaking of options, our Legislature championed increased choices for students — by spreading awareness of apprenticeships and making competency-based programs more compatible with our traditional system — but missed a major opportunity to expand needed options for special needs students.

Apprenticeships serve as an important educational/vocational option for students. The Legislature created a commissioner of apprenticeships similar to the commissioners over higher education and technical colleges and also created a pilot program for apprenticeships in the Utah Talent Ready Program.

For students pursuing competency-based education, or CBE programs — the Legislature clarified that institutions of higher education must treat CBE transcripts on equal footing as traditional diplomas for admissions, scholarships and financial aid. And now, concurrent enrollment is available for students at younger ages than ever before. The shift toward a competency-based mentality is a good thing. Let students move at their own pace. It’s a no-brainer.

Importantly, the Legislature failed to pass a tax credit scholarship for students with special needs. Right now, families can access the Carson Smith Scholarship program, which is a wonderful but fairly limited program that helps students with special needs access private schools. The tax credit scholarship would have offered more students with special needs a plethora of education options (not just private schools) and with a cost savings to the state. Hopefully this passes next year.

Governance

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A bill to address the education governing structure didn’t pass but received attention. A constitutional amendment and companion bill would have replaced the current 15-person, elected state board of education with a nine-person, governor-appointed board. The goal was to clarify education politics for voters and to give the governor the power most people already assume he or she has. We can anticipate the issue to be studied during the interim and to gain broader consensus. Whatever happens, we need a policy that’s honest about remediating the current confusion over who’s in charge in education.

What did pass? A clarifying bill that says a candidate running for state board of education can run as a partisan, nonpartisan or write-in candidate. If you have strong feelings on either side of this, then you should stay tuned for this conversation. It’s not going away.