Educators should start lobbying now
The Utah state Legislature doesn’t open its next session for another two months, so now is the time for interested parties to lobby lawmakers and prepare their messages. Utah political guru LaVarr Webb recently wrote in his e-newsletter Utah Policy Daily, "Most legislative failures are failures of communications. But the time to communicate, the time to educate, isn’t after a session starts. In fact, by then it’s probably too late." Education is always a prevalent issue at the Capitol, and represents the largest financial commitment the Legislature makes. The Utah Education Association is pushing for more dollars this year with its highly publicized "No Excuses" campaign. "It’s designed to raise public awareness of the lack of funding for education," said Bob Burns, co-president of the Park City Education Association. Based on information he received at the recent annual UEA conference, Burns reported that Utah has the largest average class sizes in the country, with the lowest amount spending per pupil: $4,890. The national average is $7,701. Utah’s large class sizes and low per-pupil spending are connected to the fact that Utah families are generally larger than those elsewhere in the country. And more are on the way, Burns said. "There is going to be a huge growth. There’s an expectation of almost 160,000 of new students in the next nine years," Burns said. Now Utah has about 500,000 public school students. Despite the low per-pupil spending, UEA touts Utah student success. The Montana State University Center for Applied Economic Research (msubillings.edu) ranked Utah No. 1 in the United States for educational efficiency. "It really is exceptional the performance that Utah educators are accomplishing," Burns said. "They’re spending less than any other state and we’re performing above the 50th percentile." One spending item educators will push to see an increase for is transportation, according to Park City School District business administrator Von Hortin. Gas prices are "going through the roof," Hortin said, "so people are taking education dollars for that." Hortin described a "move afoot" by some conservative legislators to redefine the minimum school program, which provides line items for different educational costs, including transportation. These legislators want to fund a single lump sum per student without those line items, Hortin continued. Proponents would say such a move is better for school districts because they get to decide how to spend their money, Hortin said, but "what they’re trying to do is get a higher amount for charter schools, which don’t require busing." But that won’t work the same for school districts which are required to transport kids, Hortin said. One issue UEA will probably lobby against again this year, Burns predicts, is tuition tax credits, which would give parents a tax credit for sending their children to private schools. A bill which would have created such credits was defeated in the last legislative session. Hortin agrees, "If they didn’t get it last year, they’ll get it this year." How to lobby While the Legislature’s official session doesn’t start until January, Hortin follows the minutes from interim committees off the legislative website (le.state.ut.us), which also includes legislator profiles and contact info. State Rep. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, whose district includes west Summit County, said people can contact their own representatives and representatives on the Legislature’s education committee. "If they can identify who the people are who are on the committee and they have the opportunity to talk with them, even if they’re not their elected representatives, they have an obligation to the policy issue they’re a part of," Romero said. "So the input into that committee and participation attending committee meetings and talking to members is an important first step." It’s also important for educators to become familiar with the appropriations committee, which decides how much money goes where, he continued. "It’s a good way to understand what other needs are competing for the dollars education has," Romero said. "When educators see where it goes, they can best tell why their projects are not as funded at the level they would like. Having that knowledge will help the legislators see this person does really know the process." Teachers should also be careful about choosing when to lobby legislators, Romero said. They shouldn’t come at a time when lawmakers might wonder, "Why are you lobbying me instead of teaching?" Because there’s no school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s a good day to lobby, Romero said, and receptions after about 5 p.m. can be effective too. Lawmakers are interested in hearing from educators, who can "tell us truly what is going on in education and what are the needs of the teachers in the classrooms," Romero said. "We think we have a good sense, but to hear it directly from the teachers puts the story in context and helps us understand the needs for the schools and communities," he continued.
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