Bill to put students in charge of school budgets held up

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 15 2012 7:05 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal that would overhaul education funding for Utah high school students was held up in a House committee Wednesday so it can be further evaluated and amended.

HB123, sponsored by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, would give each of the state's 167,000 high school students an individual education account in which the state would deposit funds for courses and school fees. Rather than allocating money to a district based on how many students are enrolled, Dougall's proposal would allow students and their families to choose where they want to spend their allotted $6,400 per school year.

"Money would follow the kid," Dougall told the House Education Committee. "We're trying to encourage conscientious consumers. … We allow them to shop with their feet to help convey what they value the most."

Dougall said students could attend a variety of high schools, charter schools, colleges of applied technology and state universities and receive credit. While high school students currently enjoy concurrent enrollment options, Dougall said he wants to consolidate the various line items that make such programs possible. He said current public education funding formulas are confusing to tax payers.

"We don't know where the money is going, the public doesn't know how much we're spending," he said. "Because the money doesn't follow the child, the bureaucracy tells them 'no.'"

Dougall said a system based on earmarks eliminates local control. Rather than lawmakers dictating how much schools should get for International Baccalaureate programs, for instance, Dougall's bill would let students essentially determine how much schools would receive based on whether or not they enrolled in IB classes.

His proposal would also allow students with money in their accounts at the time of graduation to put the dollars toward in-state college and university tuition.

Some lawmakers wondered if the proposal would lead to a dumbing-down of curriculum, with students opting to take cheaper, less rigorous classes in high school in order to have tuition leftover that they could use for college.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said his son is currently enrolled in an advanced accounting class that only has five students in it. Eliason wondered if that course would be cut under Dougall's plan, since it's more expensive to offer than bigger classes. What's more, he wondered if his son wouldn't be able to take all the offerings he currently can since he would be on a limited budget.

"When they run out, my next question would be, 'then what?'" he said. "I'm really caught up in the accounting details. … In the real world you declare bankruptcy, and I don't think our students can do that."

Dougall countered that his proposal would create competition, so schools would find ways to offer programs for less money. He said there's still some aspects to be worked out.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, said the proposal would require a huge effort and expense for the State Office of Education to manage.

"It's an ambitious effort," McIff said. "I just think the mechanics are extremely difficult for those who must respond."

Dougall said additional funds for special education students and rural schools would remain available.

The Utah PTA and State School Boards Association oppose the bill in its current form. The Sutherland Institute spoke in favor of it.

The committee discussed voting to study the bill in interim session, but ultimately voted to hold it in committee pending amendments. Some argued it would be best to try it on a trial, pilot basis rather than moving it forward to the entire system.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer

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