Legislature meets education funding priorities, looks to future

Published: Thursday, March 14 2013 8:15 p.m. MDT

Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, speaks to the media during the final day of the 2013 Legislature at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 14, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers met the top funding priorities of both public and higher education for the 2013-14 academic year, leading to a legislative session that focused less on dollars and cents and more on a need for long-term planning. 

Lawmakers supported the creation of an education task force, endorsed an eight-year goal to increase degree holders in the state and, in some cases, defeated bills deemed a distraction to larger education goals.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said he wants lawmakers to move away from proposing situational or reactive legislation and instead present bills that contribute to a larger mission. Reid, who sponsored SB169 to create an education task force, said he envisions the group as a mechanism to filter out bills that, while meritorious on their own, take time and resources away from larger issues.

He also said the task force will be able to work with education officials to address concerns prior to debate. With that in mind, Reid took the rare step of withdrawing his own resolution, a controversial proposal to give the governor and Senate approval and confirmation power over the state superintendent of public instruction.

"I thought it would be useful to delay this legislation and allow the State School Board and others to come before the task force and talk about what the governor's relationship should be among the parties," Reid said.

At the start of the session, members of the Utah Democratic Party issued a call for leadership and vision in public education. In his vote for the public education budget, HB2, on the penultimate day of the session, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, reiterated his concern that the state's practice of funding one year's growth from limited annual revenues is insufficient for meaningful improvement in schools.

"I just don't think that's a good way," Dabakis said. "We need to make a serious 10-, 15-year commitment."

Lawmakers approved a budget that added more than $150 million in supplemental funding to the $3.7 billion public education base budget, the largest increase in several years. Those funds included $68.5 million for growth in enrollment and an increase of $47.7 million, or 2 percent, to the value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic funding unit for public education. 

State Superintendent Martell Menlove said he would give the Legislature a "strong B-plus or A-minus" for its efforts to fund education. Menlove said he was appreciative that lawmakers had funded the additional 13,000 students expected to enter the school system next year and raise the weighted pupil unit.

"It's not everything we asked for. It's definitely not everything we need. There continue to be great needs," he said. "But if you're grading effort from the Legislature, I think they've made great effort in funding education."

Higher education

David Buhler, state commissioner of higher education, said lawmakers addressed the Board of Regents' first and second priorities by appropriating $18 million in mission-based funding and $10.5 million in retirement and health insurance costs for employees.

The Legislature also provided $1.5 million to aid the newly created Dixie State University in its transition from college status and $1 million for the Regents Scholarship program.

"The tone toward higher education has been very positive," Buhler said.

Not present in the funding for higher education was a designated line item for the governor's initiative — endorsed by the Legislature during the final week of the session — to have 66 percent of Utah's adults hold a postsecondary degree or certification by 2020.

Buhler said several of the funding decisions made by the Legislature will contribute to that goal, such as mission-based funding and $10 million to add 40 student slots to the the medical school at the University of Utah.

But as the state moves toward the 2020 deadline, more discussions about funding the state's colleges, universities and applied technology schools will be necessary, he said.

"In the future, if we're going to be serious about it, we're going to need more funding to address capacity," Buhler said.

Gov. Gary Herbert said he was pleased and appreciative of the work done by the Legislature, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding the so-called "fiscal cliff" and federal sequestration.

Herbert said there were a number of points in the budget that contribute, directly or indirectly, to the 66 by 2020 goal, including the roughly $20 million investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, collectively referred to as STEM.

"I feel very good about what they've done and how they've done it," he said. "The fact that we're going to be putting probably around $20 million of new money into STEM education is a significant step forward."

The governor said the process of increasing educational outcomes in the state can't happen overnight, but he's encouraged that lawmakers, educators and the business community are now united under a common goal. 

"We still have got work to do, but it's a journey," Herbert said. "We're not to the promised land yet, but we're on the right road and we're going in the right direction."

Fighting teen suicide

Beyond the budget, lawmakers considered several bills aimed at curbing Utah's high rate of teen suicide. Rep. Steve Eliason's bill requiring school districts to hold annual seminars on suicide, bullying and Internet safety quickly passed through both the House and Senate.

Another bill by Eliason, R-Sandy, creating suicide prevention coordinators over the school system and state, and a bill by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, requiring schools to notify parents of suicide threats, both passed in the final days of the session.

"This topic is more than sad, it's worse than tragic, but it's preventable," Eliason said during debate of his seminar bill. "This is one small step to help our children who so desperately need our help."

Several ambitious education bills failed to generate the traction necessary to clear both chambers. An innovative plan designed in collaboration with the education community to expand public preschool through private donations fell short in the Senate. A bill to shrink class sizes fizzled due to lack of funding and passed only after being dramatically retooled.

And one year after a controversial sex education bill overshadowed the 2012 Legislative session and prompted a gubernatorial veto, a proposal to create a sex education training curriculum for parents passed the Senate only to fall flat in the House.

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com

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