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Charter schools, funding education discussed at policy summit

Published: Friday, Jan. 13 2012 8:18 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Exactly which public and higher education issues will rise to the top during the 2012 legislative session remain to be seen after policymakers discussed issues facing the state Tuesday.

Two hundred elected officials, lobbyists, nonprofit leaders and business officials met Friday to weigh in on issues ranging from charter schools to eliminating the state's caucus system.

While Gov. Gary Herbert touched on his recommendation that the Legislature spend $134 million more for public and higher education, lawmakers focused their comments on allocation.

"We continue to put resources in education — I think we need to define that," said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan. "(We should) put resources in where they'll do the most good. … Watch for that this session."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said lawmakers need to make targeted investments in education, not just dump more money into the system.

"We will continue to push education. … But it's quality not quantity," he said. "I think we're doing really good, but we could do better."

A Dan Jones and Associates poll released at the summit showed 66 percent of those Utahns polled believe public education is a very important economic investment.

When given the choice of spending state surplus dollars on transportation, public education, cutting taxes, higher education and paying down state debt, more Utahns polled strongly in favor of putting the surplus toward public education. Paying down state debt was the second highest priority.

Administrators and educators at the summit, sponsored by Salt Lake-based public relations firm Exoro Group, discussed the benefits and challenges of competition, particularly from public charter schools and for-profit private colleges.

"In Canyons, charter schools both compete and complement. … I embrace both of those," said Canyons School District Superintendent David Doty. "I have a hard time understanding why so many Americans embrace (competition) on the gridiron but don't embrace it in the classroom."

Doty said he'd be OK with legislation that would allow for even more charter schools as long as traditional public schools were afforded more flexibility and they were both judged by the same assessments and standards.

"We can't compete if we're hamstrung with a structure that is a lot more rigid than what they have to deal with," he said.

Howard Headlee, founder of American Preparatory Academy charter schools, said he'd like to see the Legislature take some of the valuable lessons that have been learned from charter schools applied to traditional public schools.

"We built the laboratories but we didn't build the bridge to the market," he said. "The idea isn't to build more charter schools. We really need to build this bridge."

Nolan Karras from the Utah Board of Regents said he welcomes competition from private institutions of higher education as well, but is proud of the state's "darn fine brands."

"I'm proud to have those kids carry out diplomas into the business world," he said.

Speakers at the five-hour breakfast and luncheon said it's essential to have a strong education system in order to compete nationally.

"Our ability to educate our society at a better level than the balance of this country is key to our long-term prosperity and the security of this economy," said Mark Bouchard, who serves on the Governor's Education Excellence Commission. "It can't be a political issue; it has to be about the kids."

Jenkins, director of external relations at Western Governors University, said the U.S. can't afford to have any unproductive students, since other countries have far more people, and therefore a much larger number of successful students.

"We really can't lose a single kid," he Jenkins.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, Twitter: mollyfarmer

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