Utah's Democratic lawmakers urge investment in teachers

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5 2014 4:45 p.m. MST

At a meeting Wednesday at the Utah Capitol, members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses championed the role of trained educators in contributing to student success.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Democratic lawmakers renewed their call for greater investment in education Wednesday, while also offering criticisms of school grading and an expensive proposal by House Speaker Becky Lockhart to increase technology in schools.

At a meeting at the state Capitol, members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses presented the education-related bills they are sponsoring this year and championed the role of trained educators in guiding student success.

"There’s a lot of talk in the Capitol about public education," Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said. "Sometimes there’s action, which has often accomplished little more than making the lives of educators more stressful and difficult."

The meeting came on the 10th day of the 2014 Legislature, which also saw final passage of the base budget for public education and comments from conservative lawmakers on the positive and collaborative relationship that has developed between state lawmakers and education officials.

During Wednesday's meeting of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, representatives from the State School Board and State Office of Education presented their budget requests for the new year, which include funding for the additional 10,300 students expected to enter Utah public schools next year, an increase in per-pupil funding levels, and targeted investments for professional development and school counselors.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, both commended the State Office of Education for aligning budget requests with priorities established by a special task force that has met throughout the year to discuss public education. Gibson also categorized recent discussions with educators as the highest level of collaboration he had seen in his time as a member of the appropriations committee.

But Democratic lawmakers maintain that the conversations surrounding money for schools largely preserves the status quo and does little to advance the state's educational goals.

Not only is Utah last in the nation in terms of per-pupil funding, Briscoe said, but the state lags behind Idaho, the next lowest state, by $365 million or $648 per student.

"Utah schools have been underfunded for so long, we hardly need to remind anyone where Utah ranks when it comes to supporting our children in public schools," Briscoe said.

He described school grading, a controversial measure that began in the state last year, as a program that labels schools as failing while doing little to help combat the factors that contribute to low student performance.

"Giving each school a letter grade without support will not help schools succeed," Briscoe said.

He also took aim at Lockhart's proposal to flood schools with technology. The specifics of the bill, which is being sponsored by Gibson, have not yet been released, but the initiative is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement.

Lockhart has stated she does not intend to call for a tax increase to finance the bill, meaning the funds would be reallocated at the expense of other education or state programs.

Flanked by House and Senate Democrats, Briscoe said Wednesday it is not the amount of money spent on education that promotes success but how and on whom state tax dollars are allocated.

He described Lockhart's proposal — which would potentially require a greater expenditure than the $261 million of additional funding for all of public and higher education in Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget — as an "audacious move."

"If I had $300 million to spend on public education, would I put it all in one basket? No." Briscoe said.

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