Money, technology to be top education issues this legislative session

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

Brad Malm, project manager for the Granite School District, gives a tour of the construction of the new Granger High School in West Valley City on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. Here he stands on what will be the stage in the new auditorium.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Money and a hope for better collaboration this year are top of mind for legislators and educators alike as the 2012 legislative session convenes Monday.

From a package of bills that would revamp the state's assessment system to a proposal by state Democrats that would increase funding for public education by $500 million, lawmakers are mapping out their priorities.

"I know that the Appropriations Committee is going to do everything in its power to fund growth," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.  

With an estimated 12,500 new students expected to enter the school system this fall, lawmakers are hoping to funnel more dollars to account for the new students. Gov. Gary Herbert asked the Legislature to spend an additional $40 million more to account for the influx.

"The most important budget discussion will be funding growth in education," Osmond said.

Democrats, however, don't want to stop there. Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, has plans for legislation that would allocate an additional $500 million to the education budget.

"Funding doesn't automatically translate to a better education system, but it's part of it," he said.

McAdams' plan would freeze property tax rates, so as home values rise, tax revenue would as well. He'd freeze some personal income tax exemptions — particularly those related to dependents — and he'd also dedicate 30 percent of new sales tax revenue to public education.

McAdams said his plan would gradually increase revenue for education over the next decade, ultimately generating an additional $760 per pupil. He said the state needs to come up with a plan rather than starting over every year.

"Instead of waiting until each budget cycle is finalized," he said, "this would allow us to do long-term funding to meet our education needs."

Other lawmakers are working with the State Board of Education to make 2012 the session that embraced technology to usher in a new way for students to take assessments.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is sponsoring a $6 million bill that would provide computer adaptive tests for children. The money for the bill would be added to current dollars spent on pencil and paper Criterion Referenced Exams, which would be eliminated. The computer assessments are believed to more accurately show what concepts students learn, and what concepts they struggle on.

"That will be a complete change in our assessment accountability system," said Debra Roberts, chairwoman of the State Board.

In order for the new assessment system to be viable, schools would need to have a 1-to-3 ratio of computers per students, which leads to an even pricier piece of legislation. Osmond, a freshman senator who was elected to replace former GOP Sen. Chris Buttars who retired last year, is sponsoring a technology bill that would allocate $15 million in one-time money for the purchase of computers and other devices. Another $5 million would be allocated on an annual basis.

"Our ultimate goal, as we can scrap together the funding, is to get to a one-to-one (ratio)," Roberts said.

Roberts said she's hopeful that if Hughes' and Osmond's bills pass, the state could have a revamped testing system in place by the 2014-15 school year.

Utah Education Association leaders spent much of their time last year defending the teaching profession when the national spotlight was cast on public employees in Wisconsin, where lawmakers stripped away collective bargaining rights.

This year, UEA leaders are hopeful to spend less time in the hot seat. One proposal they're planning on fighting is a bill that would disallow teachers from automatically deducting their state union dues from their paychecks.

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