By Representative Christine Watkins, District 67
Last week was one of the busiest opening weeks that I have experienced. The week involved the Governor’s State of the State speech, floor time voting on bills, committee meetings, several early morning caucus meetings and meetings with groups that have requests. We also had several training meetings at noon over lunch.
On Tuesday, the voucher bill, HB 215, Utah Fits All Scholarship, was released. We were told it would be going through committee and if the bill passed, we would be voting on the bill as early as Friday morning. Several of us had some concerns about a few of the items in the bill.
A late Thursday night negotiation with a few representatives and leadership ended up with the concerns being deleted. Friday morning, this was the only bill on the board. After an hour of debate, the bill was voted on and it passed. It is now on its way to the senate.
I need to give a little of my history with the voucher bill and a few others. I fought charter schools because, at that time, we believed they would really hurt public schools and destroy funding. We lost that fight, and we now have several hundred charter schools in the state. They fill a need for many families and their children, and public education moved right along.
I personally gathered over 800 signatures to put the voucher bill on the ballot in 2007. We won that battle. I voted against the Carson Smith Scholarship program for handicapped children and their siblings. Lost that one too, but the program is not being used to its full potential and again, public education moved right along.
This voucher program is estimated to help 5,000 students statewide. This scholarship represents less than 1% of Utah’s $7 billion public education budget. It is intended for lower-income families and for home schoolers. It can also be used for private schools and many other things.
Because it was a bitter pill to swallow, the sponsor and leadership attached a $6,000 compensation increase for teachers. The governor would not sign it without the pay increase for teachers. Teachers will receive a $4,200 pay increase to their present salary and $1,800 to go toward their benefits. I must emphasize that this is not a bonus; it is a permanent pay increase.
In my educational career, I never received a salary package of $6,000. Someone wrote to me saying that teachers go into teaching because they love teaching and students, not a paycheck. As a teacher with a bunch of my own kids, I will tell you I needed that paycheck. I also had a side job to help with groceries, gas and kids’ athletic obligations.
As Tevye said in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize that it’s no shame to be poor. But it is no great honor either!”
Teaching is a great and honorable profession; we should not ask teachers to take an oath of poverty. I had administrators speak against the bill, but I also had teachers who said they wanted and needed the raise and could live with the other stuff. Approximately 42% of Utah’s new teachers leave in their first five years; we need to stop that trend with a good living wage.
The legislature gave San Juan School District extra money to be able to give more money to hire and retain teachers, and it worked! They now have great, experienced teachers staying to work in this remote district. I want the teachers in my legislative district to feel valued and I hope when they get their first check next fall, they will know that I respect and honor them.
I have a grandson that we are raising in the school system, and I am like many who love their local school. But for those that do not, let us give them another option. I want teachers to thrive, not just survive. If you want to know more about the Utah Fits All bill, send me an email or text message. It is not too complicated, but does have a lot of information in it.
Cell: (435) 650-1969
Facebook: Representative Christine Watkins