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

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

A concurrent resolution, SCR5, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton would express the Legislature's support for a state goal of two-thirds of Utah's adults holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. That resolution has so far cleared the Senate and will now be considered by the House.

Meanwhile a bill to place a cap on elementary class sizes – a common source of complaint against Utah schools – stalled in committee amidst concerns that the bill's lack of funding would be a detriment to class size reduction efforts. Educators agree that smaller classes are preferred to meet the needs of individual students, but in the past two years, bills that would address class size have failed to reach a consensus on just how to pay for it and what other costs may be.

A possible solution

Reid wants lawmakers to establish benchmarks and then allow the state school board to formulate a plan and return with funding requests. For example, the Legislature could set a goal of median class size, but it would be up to educators to develop a program to reach that goal and to report back to the lawmakers on what funding is necessary.

He said doing that would empower educators and would better align the distinct but collaborative roles of the state school board and state Legislature.

"Let the experts tell us how they can get to these outcomes and expectations," he said.

Niederhauser said that long-term planning not only makes for better legislation, but also relieves a burden placed on schools. With the high volume of new laws put in statute each year, he said lawmakers' actions can sometimes present a distraction that gets in the way of educating Utah's children.

"Once we know where we’re headed, then we’ll talk about some steps that get us there," Niederhauser said. "Oftentimes, (educators) are inundated with new programs and new ideas and we need to simplify their lives and simplify their work so it’s focused on student outcomes."

Legislative inundation is a common complaint, typically raised by educators, as school districts and administrators are perpetually tasked with implementing the latest directives from Capitol Hill. With many new laws calling for a phase-in over a series of several years, it can seem like new statute arrives before the old law's ink has a chance to dry.

Brenda Hales, deputy state superintendent of public instruction, said she is impressed by the current atmosphere of collaboration and deliberation at the Legislature. She said it is the continuation of a trend in recent years, in which lawmakers and education officials recognize they're working toward a common goal.

"Let’s slow down a little bit and consolidate what we’re doing and make sure that we’re spending money wisely and it's not just going to new programs that pop up each year," she said. "I think there’s an acknowledgement that the various groups – us, the governor’s office, the Legislature – they’re all trying to accomplish the same thing and it's better if we try to do it together."

Dabakis said he likes what Reid is trying to accomplish, but he said he hopes a task force or any long-term planning would lead to a vision of not only what the structure of education in Utah should be, but also the funding. He said the governor and many lawmakers view funding growth each year as a "victory," but that only preserves the status quo and the time may have come to consider raising taxes.

Searching for money

A poll released lass month by Exoro and the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration found that 55 percent of Utah voters support raising taxes to fund education. Gov. Gary Herbert has long maintained that a healthy and growing economy is the best and most secure way to secure education funding, as tax increases would stifle economic development.

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