SALT LAKE CITY — Determined lawmakers left a mark on education laws this year and also bolstered the state's education budget considerably, funneling tens of millions of dollars to districts with surging populations.
An influx of about 14,700 new students expected to enter the system next school year was the biggest concern for lawmakers and educators alike since schools haven't received funding for growth the last two years.
Lawmakers eventually decided to increase the education budget by 2.2 percent to fund growth.
"The budget is wonderful," said Patti Harrington with the Utah School Boards Association. "We are so happy about the budget and so appreciative of the Legislature for funding growth with new money."
Lawmakers were able to restore all the cuts made earlier in the session and then some.
"I'm very pleased," said Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan. "I thought it was very important this year that we did additional funding for public education."
What's more, a number of programs with uncertain futures were ultimately funded.
An optional extended-day kindergarten program, a favorite of the governor, received $7.5 million in funding. And a program aimed at having all third-grade students reading at or above grade level was funded by the Legislature with $15 million.
The Legislature also decided to increase the number of dollars allocated per student from $2,577 last year to $2,816. That's not necessarily a result of new funding, however, since dollars previously allocated to districts in other ways were folded into the per-pupil amount in order to increase it.
"I don't know that anybody knows the effects of that," said Kory Holdaway with the Utah Education Association. "But you're going to have some winners and losers."
A controversial law that will give every school in the state a "grade" based on student performance passed this year. Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said it's impossible to improve schools in the state without knowing how they're doing first.
"We have to focus on the results, and the results are in student performance," he said.
Niederhauser's bill determines if a school is an A, B, C, D or F school based on test scores, improvement from one year to the next, and graduation rates for high school students.
Some lawmakers claim the law will "dispirit" teachers who inherit students with complex challenges. Grades will be assigned for the 2011-2012 school year.
Concerns over the American history instruction students receive prompted lawmakers to write some aspects of curriculum. Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, said he believes teachers use the terms "democracy" and "republic" interchangeably, and wrongfully so. Morley's bill specifies the United States is a "constitutional compound republic."
"We need to have a thorough and correct study of the form of government we have," Morley said.
A movement to strip the State Board of Education of the constitutional control of education gained steam early in the session but fizzled out by the end.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, proposed giving the governor control of public and higher education.
"The governor needs to take responsibility for the various parts of education in our state," Reid said.
The effort passed the Senate, but never made it out of the House. It was considered by some to be a message bill meant to rattle the State Board of Education.
Legislation that would have made state school board elections into partisan elections also died in the House.
Currently, a committee and the governor decide whose names will be placed on state board election ballots. The bill would have allowed candidates to vie for seats on the board through the same party convention process lawmakers go through.
Opponents agree changes needed to be made to the current system, but partisan elections are not the answer.
"Children do not come to school as Democrats or Republicans," Harrington said. "Neither should those that lead those schools."
A bill three years in the making that will prohibit districts from paying any portion of the salary of a teacher on union leave made headway this session and passed after negotiations between the House and Senate.
Another law that was enacted prohibits schools from basing layoff decisions on seniority — a bill some lawmakers said will hurt the profession since districts will be more inclined to layoff higher-paid teachers to save money.
A measure that would have made local school districts with students attending charter schools more responsible for their funding was heard again this year. HB313 was abandoned, however, toward the end of the session when GOP representatives couldn't agree on the matter.
Another successful law will allow high school students to take classes "a la carte" from online providers. The amount of money allocated per student will be divided into equal parts so a high schooler can apply those dollars to multiple learning institutions on a per-class basis.
The only eligible providers will be in-state online charter schools and four district programs.
"This is a huge beginning, (it) puts us ahead of any other state," said sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
The budget also authorizes an enrollment increase of 7,100 new charter school students.