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Democrat leaders put forth plan for public education

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 5:49 p.m. MDT

NORTH SALT LAKE — Utah Democrats want a forward-thinking plan for public education, something they say has never happened in the state.

"There was a lot of talk about Utah being the best managed state in the nation (last session)," said Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, "and being the education advocate that I am, I asked the question, 'Well, why shouldn't Utah be number one in education?'"

A coalition comprised of House and Senate Democrats released its "Best Schools initiative" Tuesday at Foxboro Elementary in North Salt Lake. Lawmakers are in the process of drafting legislation that will further with the coalition's three initiatives:

• Attracting qualified teachers to the state

• Providing smaller class sizes and individualized attention to students

• Offering a broad curriculum

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said Utahns care deeply about public education, but Republican lawmakers don't always represent their constituents when it comes time to vote.

"We are the minority but I think we represent the majority in this regard in the public," she said.

The state doesn't need more tax policies that are good for business and bad for schools, it needs in a plan, she said.

"As we have funded these other areas, we have found a way to fund roads, we have found a way to bring business to Utah," she said. "But we decreased funding for education."

Moss said a recent focus on grading schools de-emphasizes subjects that aren't tested but are crucial to making well-rounded students.

"What we're seeing happening … is this emphasis on grading schools and evaluating teachers by those subjects we test," Moss said. "The effect of that is to narrow the curriculum."

Morgan said the specific bills have not been drafted yet, but lawmakers are working to get those in place as the 2012 Legislative session nears.

"We're in the beginning stages but we really believe that Utah should have a plan — a long-term plan for education," Morgan said.

Republican leaders say they welcome any ideas for tackling challenges in the state.

"I'm looking forward to the details because any ideas for improving education are welcome and ought to be given fair consideration," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

The coalition's focus on reducing class sizes was one initiative Stephenson said he'd like to learn more about. The Legislature has been allocating more than $80 million to that purpose annual, yet lawmakers found it oftentimes didn't affect class sizes at the local level, he said.

"What we found was even though we were giving more than $80 million a year for class size reduction, when times got rough, class sizes went up and when times got better, class sizes dropped," he said.

Stephenson said that "in spite of the amount of money we were giving for class size reduction," schools often used that money to balance their budgets.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer

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