Utah Legislature: Public education gets funding for growth

Published: Friday, March 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

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.

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