SALT LAKE CITY — Utah state legislators from both sides of the aisle fielded questions Thursday about education policy and how to create equal opportunities for all Utahns in the wake of a pandemic that’s had a disproportionate impact on already-struggling communities.
The United Way of Salt Lake hosted the hourlong Q&A session featuring prerecorded responses from legislative leaders and prominent members of both parties.
“One of the things we need to do, I think, the most, is to be able to fund education,” said Senate President Stuart Adams in response to a question about how to get Utah students “back on track.”
“You saw what we did in December as we gave additional money and committed additional money to education,” he said.
Legislators were able to restore education funding that had been slashed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and they allocated money for bonuses for Utah teachers.
But Republicans especially continued to emphasize their desire for all students to return to the classroom, something they made clear last month when they said Salt Lake City School District teachers would only get the bonus if the district returned to in-person instruction.
“We’re seeing that that’s more effective,” said Adams, R-Layton. “I think as we enter the legislative session, we’ll be encouraging teachers to teach in person but also trying to fund education so that we have the capacity to be able to take care of the kids.”
“As we try to recover economically, we should also think about recovering the academic loss for our students,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.
Democrats generally agreed about the dangers of falling behind academically while also supporting districts’ ability to make those decisions for themselves. House Minority Leader Brian King said it’s important districts are “allowed the latitude” to make decisions they believe are “based on science and facts.”
“But I also think, again, we’ve got to have greater resources targeted to the vulnerable communities within the school districts,” said King, D-Salt Lake City. “We’ve got our Title I schools,” those with high concentrations of low-income families, “and they’re the ones I think we should be focusing our greatest level of resources toward.”
“One of my biggest priorities is keeping them healthy,” said Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who went on to say they also need to address students’ “education gaps.”
“Those are real,” she said. “There’s no way we can believe that finishing a school year prior to what was expected, then moving into online education without having an infrastructure was not going to affect the outcome of the education achievement of our kiddos.”
In November, Utah voters narrowly approved a GOP-backed constitutional amendment that allows state income tax to be used not only for education funding, but also for programs related to children or disabilities. In exchange for this latitude, Republicans promised a mandatory yearly increase in education spending.
Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said income tax is “absolutely the most volatile tax there is.”
“We’re going to be able to stabilize it for basic, foundational education funding,” she said. “That means we won’t have these swings in recession times, which is what has made it so hard for us as a state to continue to grow education funds.”
House Speaker Brad Wilson said passing Amendment G would be “one of the points in time when we really look back and celebrate something significant we’ve done for education and education funding in this state.”
“It’s really a pivotal moment for us,” said Wilson, R-Kaysville.
Democrats espoused a cautiously optimistic, wait-and-see approach while vowing to hold the GOP to its funding promises. “We need to make sure that the promises are kept,” Escamilla said.
House Minority Whip Karen Kwan explicitly criticized the amendment that some Democrats had opposed, saying it will “only make a limited amount of revenue be more limited.”
“The monies that were specifically for education will now need to be delineated also for these other programs, which will reduce that part of the pie,” said Kwan, D-Murray. “The question is whether the supports that were put in legislation to support education will continue year to year to year.”
During the Q&A, lawmakers also discussed how to ensure an equitable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. While Utah’s economy largely weathered the storm as a whole, certain sectors and industries, like hospitality and tourism, were hit harder than others.
“I think there will still be a desire to continue to provide support for industries that have been hit really hard,” said House Budget Vice Chairman Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs.
The legislative preview came a day after the branch announced the session will begin closed to the public due to ongoing safety concerns following last week’s U.S. Capitol riot. Public comment and feedback, a staple of bill development, will be done virtually for the time being.
“As lawmakers, we take our responsibility to govern seriously,” Adams said in a statement. “We will convene as scheduled in a manner that is safe for everyone as we work on behalf of Utahns. Though this session will be unconventional, we recognize the value of public input and have worked to fine-tune a process that will enable remote public comment.”
Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he supports the decision in light of threats against lawmakers and possible continuing protests. President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on the second day of Utah’s legislative session.
“We appreciate the counsel of the Utah Highway Patrol in monitoring potential social unrest and keeping the public, state employees and the Capitol building safe,” Cox said.
The session begins on Jan. 19.