Bathrooms, vouchers, diversity and guns—the Utah education bills to watch before the end of the 2024 session | News | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Bathrooms, vouchers, diversity and guns—the Utah education bills to watch before the end of the 2024 session

Midterm Report



The Utah Legislature, as is tradition, is taking a long look at education this session. Lawmakers have pitched more than 70 school-related bills this year. From bathroom requirements to water efficiency, sex education, displaying the Ten Commandments and beyond, the Legislature has big plans for the future of Utah's children and teens.

Members of the Utah Board of Education formally supported six bills this session, including a proposal to pay out a stipend to student teachers as they work toward certification. While there is plenty of noise on the Hill about education, the board is trying to keep the focus on kids and educators, spokesperson Kelsey James said.

"When the board looks at legislation, it's like, 'OK, does it support students and their academic achievement? Does it support educators? Can we afford it?'" James said. "That's a big question this year, because the Legislature doesn't have as much money as they may have had in the past."

As of press time, several education bills have already passed. Of those, one—HB 261—has perhaps garnered as much attention as any bill this year, as it rids Utah's eight public universities of their diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

It Came to Pass
Two bills were signed into law on Jan. 30 by Gov. Spencer Cox, one being the aforementioned HB 261, sponsored by Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden. This bill has a number of new requirements for universities, but two of the most impactful ones involve "prohibited submissions" and the banning of "discriminatory practices."

Perhaps the most devastating and immediate knock-on effect of the bill, according to its opponents, is the outlawing of diversity, equity and inclusion offices. The bill also requires an annual training for employees on "the separation of personal political advocacy from an institution's business and employment activities."

Professors at the University of Utah voiced their displeasure at a recent meeting with the school's president, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

There's been less attention on the subject of prohibited submissions, but it's an equally strong-handed element of the policy. Prohibited submissions are, according to the bill, any "submission, statement or document" related to anti-racism, Critical Race Theory (CRT), intersectionality and other topics relating to "bias."

Universities, under the new bill, cannot "require, request, solicit or compel'' a prohibited submission when considering applicants—both as potential employees and students.

Essentially, schools can't force potential hires, employees seeking promotions (like professors seeking tenure, for example) or incoming students to talk about their work with one of these banned subjects when considering them for involvement at the university. It also bans schools from giving any "preferential consideration" to individuals who provide prohibited submissions with or without solicitation.

The bill passed the House and Senate on party-line votes, with Democrats opposed.

The other education-related bill signed law month focuses on sex-based separation of bathrooms and locker rooms. HB 257, sponsored by Morgan Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, is particularly relevant to transgender students attempting to use gender-designated facilities within the public school system.

Specifically, the bill requires school districts to establish a "privacy plan" with parents and students and to "address gender identity and fear of bullying." The bill comes with a penalty of $10,000 each day for institutions that fail to comply and it requires that male and female facilities are of an equal standard.

Crunching the budget
While the state board is showing support for a few bills that are still in process, the main priority for board members is seeing how the funding will shake out.

As of press time, the Legislature is poised to approve a 5% increase to the weighted pupil unit (WPU), a metric used to determine per-student spending. A minimum 3.8% increase to the WPU is necessary to address inflation, with additional increases representing new funding for academic programs. Utah routinely ranks at the bottom of the nation for per-student spending. The state board has requested a WPU increase of 6%, James said.

The other big funding measure to watch is the Utah Education Fits All scholarship. In 2023, legislators approved a scholarship for public school students who wish to attend private schools but can't afford it. The bill was roundly opposed by education organizations throughout Utah.

The first $42 million worth of funding will be allocated this month, beginning Feb. 28, when the application portal opens. Lawmakers initially wanted to triple the amount of funding to $150 million next year, but the increase was shrunk to $50 million during budget negotiations. Proponents argue it empowers parents to make the best decisions for their child. Opponents say voucher programs like this one tend to help the familes already enrolled in private schools while taking money away from the stretched public school system.

Another key priority for the board is ensuring that funding for arts and early literacy programs is maintained. These programs were approved in previous legislative sessions, and the board has asked that they be funded as separate add-ons, rather than using the At-Risk or WPU funds.

Odds and Ends
One of the big victories for the school board so far this session has been an effort to support student teachers in HB 221. This bill provides a $6,000 stipend for student teachers during their training hours. As districts throughout the country struggle to hire and retain educators, this bill provides support for prospective teachers on their way to certification.

"If we're not bringing people into the profession, we're always going to be short teachers," James said.

HB 221 passed 72-0 in the House last week. It must pass the Senate before it can be signed, but the margin in the House is a good indication of its bipartisan support.

Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, has proposed HB 269, Ten Commandments in Public Schools. As the title would indicate, this is an effort to display a "poster or framed copy" of the biblical Ten Commandments in every public school classroom in the state—yes, the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

If passed, this display could no doubt help teachers trying to cut down on the wave of murder, covetousness and the worship of strange gods plaguing Utah classrooms.

And lest there be any funny business, Petersen indicates in the bill that the poster must be at least 16 inches by 20 inches.

The bill appears to be at odds with another piece of legislation, HB 303, which prohibits teachers from "espousing, promoting or disparaging" a particular viewpoint related to religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender identity and more, broadly seen as a way to prohibit Pride flags and other pro-LGBTQ displays. HB 303 narrowly passed out of a House committee last week, while the Ten Commandments bill has yet to receive an initial hearing.

As elementary schools in Salt Lake City and throughout the valley face closures, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, has proposed a bill that requires more communication with parents and taxpayers, and extends the requirements for communication when considering a closure or boundary change to special enrollment programs, like dual immersion, special education or gifted programs. The bill has passed through the House Education Committee and is waiting for an official vote on the House floor.

One of the more off-the-wall bills this session is HB 119. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, would create an "Educator-Protector Program to incentivize school teachers to responsibly secure or carry a firearm on school grounds."

Teachers who want to participate in the program would have to complete a minimum four-hour training from a local law enforcement agency.

The training would cover how to safely load, unload and store a gun; where emergency supplies are located in the school; and a "live action practice plan in responding to active threats at the school."

Upon completion of the annual training, participating educators would be able to store a firearm in a biometric gun safe in their classroom or office and "carry the firearm in a concealed manner."

The bill appears to have died upon its first reading on Jan. 16, but the effort could be something to keep an eye on in future sessions.

The state board of education hasn't taken a position on any of the bills mentioned in this section. They're also not officially opposing any bills this year.