SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart unveiled her ambitious, high-priced initiative Thursday to put an electronic device into the hands of every public school student in the state.
The plan aims to fundamentally change how teachers teach and students learn in a world increasingly reliant on technology.
"This is really about a new way, a modernization of how education is delivered," Lockhart, R-Provo, said in pitching the proposal to House Republicans.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who will carry the bill, estimates the program would cost $250 million to $300 million. The price tag includes equipping schools with Wi-Fi and bandwidth, providing each student a tablet or other personal computing device, and teacher training and development.
Gibson and Lockhart are scouring state coffers for funding, including transportation and education budgets, with an eye on the $35 million spent on textbooks each year.
An education appropriations subcommittee recommended $50 million in one-time money this year and $50 million ongoing. The one-time money would be used for the computer network in schools.
"We're looking for more than that," Lockhart said.
Asked if it's worth a tax increase, the speaker said that's a good question, but "there's not a lot of interest in raising taxes, if any."
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, called the educational concept "extremely sound" but said money is an issue.
"I still don’t think we know what the funding elements are yet, but I think the bill itself has had a lot of work done on it," Adams said.
Under the proposed Public Education Modernization Act, the State Board of Education would solicit bids for a consultant to develop a master plan for the infrastructure, electronic devices, teacher development, technical support and evaluation. The board would then look to hire four vendors to provide those services. School districts would be allowed to choose a vendor from among the four options.
Lockhart said three State School Board members were involved in putting the initiative together, and that she also is working with the Senate. She said the initiative could take a couple of years to implement statewide.
“The focus is not really on the device," said State School Board Chairman David Crandall. "It focuses on having the infrastructure in place so that the schools are ready, and having professional development for the teachers and getting the technology to the teachers first so that they can use that effectively."
The board looked at successful models in other states, as well as local schools and districts with technology already in place, and incorporated that into the Lockhart plan, he said.
"If you focus on the device, it’s not effective. That’s what we’ve found. But focusing first on the professional development of the educators who are actually going to be using it, when they’ve done that, it’s been successful," Crandall said.
Gibson said the idea isn't to replace teachers or create "digital robots or depersonalize" education.
"There are going to be those times when those kids need a hug," he said. "There's also going to be those times when kids want to be able to communicate in a different format."
Lockhart said technology would be a tool to boost reading levels, test scores and graduation rates.
"This will make our kids incredibly more competitive than they are now," she said.
Contributing: Benjamin Wood, Madeleine Brown
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