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Public education budget: new kids, new money

Published: Tuesday, March 8 2011 7:12 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — After two years of going without, it looks as though new students entering Utah's public education system will be paid for with new state dollars.

But it appears an attempt to change the way charter schools are funded won't happen in the 2011 legislative session.

A $3 billion public education base budget was passed and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier in the session, but some aspects of the public education spending plan have yet to be finalized.

A budget released Tuesday allocates about $60 million to cover the educational costs of an estimated 14,700 new students expected to enter classrooms next school year. That amounts to about a 2.2 percent funding increase in education funding over last year.

"I'm very pleased," said Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, co-chairwoman of the public education appropriations subcommittee. "I thought it was very important this year that we did additional funding for public education."

The budget also funds a $15 million elementary reading program and $7.5 million for optional extended-day kindergarten — a program that was on the governor's wish-list. Those programs were not funded earlier in the budget process this session.

Bill language would allow — not require — for up to half of the reading funding and a portion of extended-day kindergarten funding to go toward technology for assessment or instruction. That was a sticking point for the governor, who wanted to make sure it was left up to districts to decide what technology programs they wanted to implement.

"Gov. Herbert was pretty adamant … that those decisions should be made at the local level," said Christine Kearl, his education director.

The value of the amount of money sent to districts per child, called the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU), also increased this year, but not entirely because more money was allocated to education. Money that was previously earmarked for certain programs and sent to districts in addition to per pupil dollars has now been folded into the WPU. According to the budget bill, the WPU will increase to $3,035 from its level of $2,577 last year.

Lawmakers propose folding about $125 million that traditionally has gone to pay for experienced teachers, and about $217 million that was traditionally spent on Social Security and retirement benefits for district employees, into the per pupil amount. Kory Holdaway with the Utah Education Association said that decision is going to have consequences.

"I don't know that anybody knows the effects of that," Holdaway said. "But you're going to have some winners and losers."

Districts will have to continue to pay for Social Security and retirement, but they may not choose to continue to fund pay increases for experienced teachers.

A funding bill that would have switched up charter school funding has been abandoned, Newbold said, because House Republicans could not reach a consensus on the issue. HB313 would have required districts to send more local property taxes to fund charter schools. Since charter schools can't levy local taxes, the state pays about 75 percent of the dollars they miss out on while districts make up for about 25 percent. Newbold's bill would have switched the full responsibility over to districts over 13 years, but discussions in House caucuses didn't end in a consensus.

"We'll just wait until we're there," she said.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

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