Funding for medical school and school transparency move forward

Published: Monday, Jan. 28 2013 7:10 p.m. MST

Returning senators are sworn in as the State Legislature begins its session, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Students looking to become doctors would have an easier time getting into the University of Utah medical school, and parents would have greater access into how school districts spend public money if two bills considered Monday by the Senate Education Committee are passed by the Utah Legislature.

Both SB42 and SB128 cleared the committee by unanimous vote. The bills are sponsored by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, and Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, respectively.

Valentine's bill would provide $10 million in ongoing annual funding to the University of Utah to create an additional 40 medical school slots each year. He said the bill would solve a problem created by the Legislature, as years of budget cuts during the recession required shrinking the medical school's student capacity.

"We all recognized that there was going to be a day when we would have to start refilling those slots," Valentine said.

In addition to restoring funding to the school, Valentine said the bill is designed to address the shortage of medical professionals in the state. The wording of the bill mandates that the 40 slots be given to individuals who are likely to remain in Utah after completing their training, such as Utah residents or students who graduated from a Utah high school or university.

"The number of doctors we need in Utah is only going to escalate," Valentine said. "As we use taxpayer dollars to fund doctors, we ought to be looking at doctors that have a higher chance of staying in Utah."

Current statute mandates that 75 percent of the school's admitted students be Utah residents, the medical school's dean, Vivian Lee, said, with another eight slots being set aside for residents of Idaho. Even with those designations, Lee said, many qualified students are turned away each year because of lack of space at the U., which has the only medical school of the Utah System of Higher Education.

"We have so many that are applying and trying to get into the University of Utah that it's just very difficult for our students to get into the university with the present number of slots that we have," she said. "Every spring, there's around 1,500 unhappy students and 1,500 unhappy sets of parents."

Speaking in support of the bill, Dave Gessel, vice president of the Utah Hospital Association, said that with the recent federal reforms under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more individuals will be obtaining health insurance and, consequently, will be seeking medical care.

"There’s no question we're going to be severely underserved with physicians if we don’t do something like this," he said.

Education transparency

In SB128, Thatcher calls for greater transparency in education funding. The bill would require that financial reports currently compiled by school districts and charter schools for the State Office of Education also be posted on the state's public finance website for online publication.

School district spending is currently posted on the website, but not in the same detail that districts and charter schools report to the state office. Thatcher said that by publishing the detailed data with the state website, parents and lawmakers would be better informed about the different expenditures and investments made by schools.

"I'm not asking them to do anything they're not already doing except share the same data with the public that they're currently sharing with their school boards," he said.

The data would be presented at the district level, and members of the education committee asked Thatcher about the possibility of providing school-specific data to the public. Thatcher said that school-by-school financial data would be ideal, but would require increased costs and planning that lawmakers could potentially consider in the future.

His current proposal, Thatcher said, would require only $15,800 to modify the state's transparency website and provide training for school districts and charter schools. He said the bill would require little effort from educators and virtually no cost to the state, but would represent a significant step in the right direction toward total disclosure.

"We’re virtually asking them to do nothing, we’re asking them to share data that they’re already collecting," he said.

Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, cautioned that because the data would represent a one-year snapshot of district spending, it could potentially lead to misunderstandings of the ongoing investment strategies in schools.

"We are interested in transparency, we are interested in providing data; however, we want to provide that data in a matter than makes sense to someone," Menlove said. "I’m not sure that providing an excessive quantity of data is going to make it possible for many who would search this to have better information."

In response, Thatcher said that with any disclosure of information there is potential the information will be misread or misunderstood. But he said that doesn't justify withholding data, particularly when it is readily available.

"Is this the absolute end game? Probably not," he said. "But it is small enough not to cause damage but big enough that it could definitely get us moving in the right direction."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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