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Creating a legislative vision for education: Do Utah lawmakers' bills advance overall goals?

Published: Saturday, March 2 2013 1:55 p.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — During a break in action on Capitol Hill recently Senate President Wayne Niederhauser described the frustration he's felt over the past six years as a state lawmaker.

The Sandy Republican said that too often he is presented with a bill and tasked with voting "yea" or "nay" despite having little or no context on how the policy would contribute to a larger state plan.

"I would like to have, and I think a lot of the other members of our body would like to have, an idea of where we’re headed," he said. "That way we can focus on bills and policy that get us to that target."

His statement was similar to one made at the start of the Legislative session by the Utah Democratic Party on the subject of public education in the state. Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City and Utah Democratic Party chairman, described the state of education as "catastrophic" and said Democrats were more than willing to work with their colleagues in the majority party if there was some consensus on what they should be working toward.

"Give us a vision, that's what we're asking," Dabakis said. "We're ready to march."

Niederhauser said he and colleagues in the Senate, particularly Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, first began thinking of the need for a long-term education plan, against which future education bills could be weighed and prioritized. By doing that, he said, lawmakers would be able to avoid spending undue time on bills that do little to advance, or distract from, the state's objectives.

That thinking led to SB169, which Reid sponsored, that would create an education task force comprised of majority and minority leadership from both the House and Senate as well as the chairpersons of the House and Senate education committees and the public and higher education appropriations committees.

Niederhauser said the purpose of the task force would be to determine what education in Utah should look like 10 years from now and to hopefully steer Legislative thinking in that direction.

"If we have even changed the course of the legislature five or ten degrees towards more long-term thinking versus a more short-term or reactive thinking I will have considered our efforts a success," he said.

Bills with purpose

Reid said that often bills are presented to the Legislature that appear meritorious, but potentially draw resources away from legislation that advances a larger statewide cause. He envisions the task force resulting in more vision, direction, coordination and discipline when it comes to new education laws.

He envisions the task force being able to establish a set of outcome priorities and directing work at the hill to determine what needs to happen, how long it should take and what resources are available.

"It provides a more rigorous filter for legislation that on its own may appear worthy of our time and resources but may be a distraction," he said.

Reid's bill is not alone in calling for long-term planning. The 2013 session has so far seen an emerging trend in calls for collaboration and deliberation and initiatives that look years into the future.

In her opening remarks for the 2013 session, House Speaker Becky Lockhart urged her colleagues to exercise caution and focus on priorities in proposing legislation. She said lawmakers pass too many bills each year and criticized the governor for not making more frequent use of his veto powers.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, that would incentivize school districts to look into the adoption of outcomes-based innovations such as data-driven instruction, extended school years and blended learning.

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