Legislative wrap-up: Education policy’s new pluralism paradigm

March 9, 2023

The 2023 legislative session ended last week, and the Legislature got a lot done – especially in education. 

The final hours of the session saw a lot of movement in public education funding. For instance, the Legislature passed a compromise – which voters must ultimately approve at the ballot box in 2024 – that would change the constitutional education funding earmark and remove the state sales tax on food. The Legislature also passed HB 394 – Hold Harmless for Public Education Enrollment Decline, which maintains state per-student public school funding levels during the next 6-10 years, when enrollment is projected to decrease. 

Beyond these newsworthy funding changes, the Legislature also passed a slew of laws that sent a message about how our paradigm of public education is changing in the state. It’s a perspective that suggests educating students using a holistic approach that includes public and private options. 

Most obviously, there was HB 215 – Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Opportunities, which gave teachers a $6,000 compensation increase and created the Utah Fits All Scholarship. The scholarship is one of the first universal education choice programs in the nation. This bill set the tone for a major shift in how we legislate on education: fund public schools and increase access to private options at the same time. 

The Legislature used a similar paradigm to ensure opportunities in extracurricular activities were the same for home and private school students as they were for public school students in HB209 – Participation in Extracurricular Activities Amendments. Specifically, the bill applies to home and private school students the same policy that public school students use to participate in extracurricular activities in schools outside of their assigned geographical boundaries. Furthermore, the same limitations on this policy apply to all types of students. Again, this bill treats all Utah students the same regardless of how their parents choose to educate them. 

To further improve private education choice, the Legislature passed HB 398 – Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program Amendments. This bill expanded the expenses for which a current special needs student recipient could use their funds and created the opportunity for prorated scholarships. And to demonstrate a commitment to improving public school teacher salaries, the Legislature pushed through HB 183 – Educator Salary Amendments, which aligns educator compensation increases along with inflation and increases in the state per-student funding formula. Ultimately, this means public school teacher salaries will automatically increase over the years. Efforts like these once again reveal Utah’s intent to legislate on both public and private education. 

Other important education bills, which did not have adequate time to pass, were also given a head start during the session. These are likely to be launching point opportunities for lawmakers to act on next year. 

For instance, one bill proposed microgrants with one-time funding. The purpose of a microgrant was to offer all Utah students public funding to access to supplemental education materials like tutoring services. The bill would have made the microgrants available to home, private and public-school students alike. Other states have passed similar bills to deal with the learning loss due to the COVID-19 school shutdowns. The opportunity remains for the Legislature in the future: addressing supplemental education needs for Utah students in all different types of education. 

And finally, as education entrepreneurship expands, there is growing interest in microschools. Some believe these schools need to be regulated, while others believe a lack of regulation is what makes them effective. As the state’s paradigm shifts on education, legislation around new modes of education will have to be thoroughly debated. 

Much of what the Utah Legislature did in education policy was constructive and beneficial for students. In future sessions they have the opportunity to build on the important paradigm shift they’ve begun to adopt this year.

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