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Policy Ambassadors

The Democratization of Education Legislation

The only way we will fix these problems is not by coming up with policies based on ideological assumptions or what other states are doing; it will be when the state legislature takes teachers seriously and turns to us to help solve these problems.
Man in grey suit and red tie smiles while at the Utah Capitol.
Published: February 22, 2024

Key Takeaways

  1. At its core, democracy remains the most revered system of governance, celebrated for its embodiment of "Popular Sovereignty." This principle empowers individuals to shape their government, highlighting the vital role of civic engagement and the collective power in steering the direction of policy and leadership.
  2. A functioning democracy thrives on the rich tapestry of diverse opinions and informed disagreements. The case of the Utah Legislature brings to light the challenges when such diversity is lacking—namely, a tendency towards unilateral decision-making and oversight of varied expert opinions.
  3. In educational policy, the insights and experiences of those on the front lines—teachers—are invaluable. The call for greater inclusion of educators in legislative processes underscores the need for policies that genuinely reflect the realities of the classroom and the broader educational landscape.

Winston Churchill once stated, “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” 

Currently, I teach two subjects—World History and U.S. Government. Teaching these two subjects helps provide a lens through which to see this quote, mostly solidifying its accuracy. Democracy is not a perfect system of government, but I truly believe it is the best humans have ever conceived. Democracy is the ideal that ties everything in this country and state together: the will of the people. In my U.S. Government class, I refer to this idea as “Popular Sovereignty,” or in other words, “Power to the People.” The beautiful part of democracy, and why it works as well as it does, is that the people are in control of the government. We have a say in all the goings-on of our elected officials, and if we don’t like what they’re doing, we can remove them from office. Its design is quite amazing and wonderful.

But here in Utah, we’ve run into a problem with our democracy in two primary ways. First, the Utah Legislature seems to have a one-track mind on many issues, and second, they often don’t listen to those who know best.

A One-Track Mind

In 1998, Aaron Sorkin premiered his first television show on ABC—Sports Night, a show about sports broadcasting. Sorkin, a famed television, movie, and play writer, is known for his powerful writing in creating high-stakes situations for his characters (“You can’t handle the truth!”), so a show about sports broadcasting might seem a bit pedestrian for his style, but that is not the case. The characters and dialogue in Sports Night still showcased Sorkin’s distinctly thought-provoking style and substance. For example, in the third episode of Sports Night, a character asks his boss why he was hired because there is a large divergence in his beliefs compared to the boss’s. The boss responds: 

“If you feel that strongly about something, you have a responsibility to try and change my mind!…It's taken me a lot of years, but I've come around to this: If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

This is the crux of what makes a good democracy—smart people getting together and disagreeing! This country was founded and established by intelligent, well-meaning men and women who disagreed on almost every single aspect of the government that we espouse today. The framers of the Constitution debated over what type of congress we should use, what powers the president should have, the rights of the individual person, and even what the national bird should be (I still think a turkey would have been fun). The foundations of our government stemmed from people sitting in a room debating the virtues of certain ideas until they came up with the best ideas they could muster. THAT is democracy in action. THAT is how to find the best solutions possible. THAT is what we should aspire to attain. 

But the Utah Legislature is not that. The Utah Legislature rarely, if ever, has a rigorous debate over issues. For the most part, they go along with what is brought to them. This is partly because there is a super-majority of one party; however, I think it stems from elected officials feeling that they need to accomplish some larger social agenda without granting credence to any other argument. 

While someone might be inclined to point out that we simply have a large majority of one party in Utah, and so it’s only natural that our state legislature is made up of mostly one party, I would contend two things. First, through the redrawing of district maps, the party in power has guaranteed that majority, as well as made it disproportional to the actual ideological balance of the state. Second, just because people belong to the same party does not mean that they have to agree on all things at all times in all places. There should be healthy dissent within every political party. 

A good example is the committee meeting held a couple of weeks ago for HB285. For that meeting, there were three rooms filled with people there to speak out against the bill. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people took time out of their day to go and have their voices heard—voices expressing opinions different from that of the majority of members on the committee. After hearing testimony for over 40 minutes, the vote to pass it through the committee was still overwhelmingly favorable. How is that possible? Three rooms were full of people in opposition, but the committee members' minds were, for the most part, already made up before they sat in their chairs that day. Why? Not because of the merits of the bill, that’s for sure; those were called into question several times throughout the hearing. Not because of the expert witness the bill sponsor brought with him—he was an outsider with little to no knowledge of anything happening in Utah. Not the good that it would bring workers in Utah—they had showed up in droves to declare the bill illogical and harmful. Then why did the committee members already have their minds made up? Because their ideology tells them that unions are bad, and they aren’t willing to engage in any conversation that might convince them otherwise. If they were willing to engage with the debate, many more of them would have seen the people assembled, heard the testimonies given, and done something to stop this bill that was unneeded and unwanted by those it will affect most.

Listen to the Experts

That committee meeting was not the only time expert voices were drowned out by preconceived ideologies.

Sometimes I complain about my job. I don’t think it’s a rare thing for someone to complain about their job, but I think it’s different when a teacher does it. I’ll demonstrate that by explaining the two types of conversations I have with people when I make a comment disparaging my career choice.

The first type of conversation begins with me expressing something I’m feeling, typically followed up by examples from my day-to-day work. The other party to the conversation will sit there listening to my gripes and grumbles and then have a turn complaining about their job while I sit and listen. We can share in the experience of humanity and adulthood by finding that we are less than completely satisfied with our career choices. Those conversations are fun, vulnerable, and empathetic. 

The other type of conversation I have when complaining about my job is a very short one, which usually ends with the other person saying either, “Well, you knew what you were getting into when you signed up to be a teacher,” or, “But you get summers off, so it’s not that bad.” These types of conversations are not fun, vulnerable, or empathetic. In fact, they are short-sighted, dismissive, and ignorant. 

Now, this article is not for me to justify complaining about my job, but rather, it’s to convey what I’ve learned from being a Policy Ambassador for UEA. But I contend these two things go hand-in-hand. 

Utah’s teachers are not listened to enough when writing laws that affect public schools. Only two other fields are equally or more regulated than education—law enforcement and medicine. If you go look at the legislature's website, you can sort legislation by topic. As of the final edits of this article (2/20/24), in this year’s session, there were

  • 96 bills about Health and Human Services
  • 95 bills about Education
  • 93 bills about Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice 

The subject with the fourth most bills was Government Operations with 70. Meaning that there were 23+ more bills submitted having to do with those three areas that were submitted to run the state itself. With that much legislation being written about very serious fields, people would like to believe that those drafting legislation are referring to the professionals who will be affected. Still, in reality, many of them do not refer to the professionals but attempt to pass bills based on the same agenda discussed above. 

This, again, is showcased well with HB285. When the professionals showed up at the committee hearing and voiced their concerns, they were not truly heard. The whole purpose of HB285 goes against what the professionals are asking for. The union members of Utah have said with a united voice that they do not want it, but despite that, certain legislators are determined to push the bill through the process, claiming it “will help the workers.” Many bills just this year could be bettered by simply talking to several teachers and getting their input. Some of them include: HB29, HB112, HB208, HB261, HB269, HB303, HB415, HB417, HB477, HB514, SB173, SB216, and SB177. There are, of course, others as well; these are just some of the most obvious bills that would have benefited from having teachers involved in the process. 

Every year, the state legislature passes laws that make teaching harder for teachers. Two years ago, it was a proposed bill that would have teachers publishing their lesson plans before the school year even started. Last year it was the voucher bill—taking money from the public school system. This year, it’s an attack on our union, making it harder for teachers to negotiate better conditions for themselves and their students. Every year it seems like we are fighting a battle for our careers. As someone who is engaged with the legislative process, I’m often asked by coworkers, “What’s the state legislature doing to us this year?” I don’t get asked about how the legislature is helping us, only about how they are causing us more headaches and a tougher job. Which isn’t completely fair; I recognize that. There are several legislators doing wonderful work on the part of public education, most notably Senator Reibe (a teacher), but that often gets drowned out by our feelings of exclusion in the process of drafting legislation that affects our work every single day. Letting teachers into the process will only increase the good the legislature can do, and make our education system more effective. 

Here are five examples of bills put forward by Senator Reibe to prove this point:

  • SB68 makes it so that administrators and teachers have more flexibility in the evaluation process, meaning that they can focus on doing their jobs while getting non-evaluative feedback. 
  • SB78 provides opportunities for incarcerated youth to gain access to higher education because education is a key ingredient to giving kids the best possible options to succeed in life. 
  • SB80 creates a grant program specifically for districts to hire and retain school personnel.
  • SB117 creates an office of student health affairs to help oversee health services provided by HHS to students and help improve student access to health services.
  • SB138 Creates a grant for districts to use to hire educators at high-need schools.

These are all wonderful ideas that will help public education and children in our state. Note that some of them do require money but for very specific reasons. When it comes to education spending in Utah, we spend less per student than almost any other state, but despite that, we have a very solid and reliable education system. These proposals would add to that system in tremendous ways. Oftentimes, education is accused of “throwing money” at a problem, but these proposals are the exact opposite—they put money exactly where it needs to go to do the most good. As someone who worked in a high-need school for two years, the number one thing we always needed was more people. People to help in the halls to stop fights aids in the classroom to help preserve a learning environment, and mentors to work with students to achieve their goals. We always needed more people but didn’t have the funding to be able to do anything about it. That is a problem that teachers everywhere can understand and agree on, and Senator Reibe is doing something about it.

That is the value of having teachers involved in the process! They know where to apply patches to the system to make the whole system function better. 

In Summation

The education system in Utah is like an intricately assembled timepiece. We’ve wound it up, and it’s running, just not ticking along as well as it could be. There are things that need fixing. Serious things like illiteracy of students, burnout of teachers, gang activities in schools, hungry students, homeless students, students suffering from mental health crises, and an evolution of trusting teachers to do the job they were hired to do. The only way we are going to fix these problems is not by coming up with policies based on ideological assumptions or what other states are doing; it will be when the state legislature takes teachers seriously and turns to us to help solve these problems. Not by seeing us a roadblock to their agenda, but a bridge to the success of our students.



Keeping the Promise of Quality Public Education

With more than 18,000 members across the state, UEA supports equal opportunities for success for ALL Utah students, and respect and support for all educators.