Cox promotes public education bills at school ceremony

HEBER CITY, Utah — Governor Spencer Cox and Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson held a ceremonial bill signing event on Wednesday, calling attention to legislation promoting public education.

One of the biggest bills was $700 million for Utah’s K-12 system.

“We tried to appropriate it in a way that allowed a lot of flexibility for districts and schools to decide what best helps students,” said Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-West Jordan, the sponsor of the bill.

But lawmakers are still negotiating a proposed constitutional amendment that would tweak the earmark for public education on the income tax. It would let the legislature dip into it to solve budget volatility, so long as they ensured public education was adequately funded.

“Our primary goal is to make sure that education funding in Utah is always protected, prioritized and adequate for our public schools,” said Dr. Sara Jones of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

The UEA has yet to take a position on the amendment.

One bill not part of Wednesday’s event was a controversial one the UEA opposed, but passed the legislature and was signed by the governor. It creates a school choice scholarship program that the union has blasted as a voucher bill that takes money from private education.

“It was a $42 million appropriation, so roughly 5,000 students in our state will initially be able to qualify for this,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman. “That averages three students per school. I view it as a release valve on the system for parents who are looking for alternative options. Honestly, we know a one size fits all doesn’t work.”

Dr. Jones said the UEA still opposed it.

“I think it’s just bad policy for our students and bad policy for Utah taxpayers. How that plays ultimately is yet to be seen, but it’s something UEA opposes and will continue to explore ways to challenge that program,” she said.

But the union does support a number of other bills that lawmakers did pass and was on hand to celebrate those pieces of legislation. They include bills increasing school security, adding more school counselors in the state and expanding all-day kindergarten.

David McNaughtan, the principal of Daniels Canyon Elementary in Heber City, said the school has been doing all-day kindergarten for five years now and they have seen success with students.

“They get to socialize more. They learn to get along. That’s what kindergarten’s about. But it gives them the head start, right? They’re reading, their letters, colors, numeracy, everything,” he said.

Other bills promoted by the governor on Wednesday included one that allows graduates to wear items of religious or cultural significance with their cap and gown at graduation. It was run after some students were blocked from wearing leis at high school graduation.

“It’s one of the most important days of their young lives, who just wanted to walk across the stage with a piece of who they are, their families, their ancestors,” said Verona Mauga with the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition. “They just wanted to celebrate their identity and this big accomplishment. This bill allows them to do that.”

Another bill requires sports teams to make accommodations for student athletes with religious beliefs. Rep. Pierucci sponsored the bill after receiving complaints that some Muslim and Sikh students had been told to remove headwear or have it match their uniforms.

“I was told to sit out the game because I was wearing a different color and hijab. I couldn’t play for the rest of the game,” said Halima, a student athlete who was at Wednesday’s event with the Utah Muslim Civic League.

Another student athlete, Raneem, said she believes the bill will help.

“I feel like with this bill, hopefully they will be a little bit more kind towards us,” she told FOX 13 News.

Bills that offer in-state tuition rates for refugee students, scholarships for the families of fallen first responders and removing the school grading performance system were also highlighted at Wednesday’s event.

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