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House gives early approval to spend $30M on improving classroom instruction

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 27 2016 8:00 p.m. MST

Legislators are hoping to put $30 million toward giving educators more opportunities for training and teaching improvement, but some educators are asking whether that money could be better spent elsewhere.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Legislators are hoping to put $30 million toward giving educators more opportunities for training and teaching improvement, but some educators are asking whether that money could be better spent elsewhere.

The House Education Committee on Wednesday passed HB28, which would award that money to schools through a qualifying grant program. The bill is part of an effort to restore about $78 million that was once given to schools for teacher training but was diverted elsewhere following the Great Recession.

"We're trying to put money back into professional development," said bill sponsor Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane. "We're not getting back to the $78 million, but it's a significant step."

But leaders of Utah's largest teachers union say schools should be given the choice of whether to spend the money on professional development or other needs.

The Utah Education Association is asking lawmakers this year for a 5 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, which is Utah's formula for equalized per-pupil funding. Allocations from the WPU are discretionary funds given to schools to spend on local needs, such as teacher salaries, training, technology and others.

Last year, UEA leaders voiced dismay at what would be a 4 percent increase to the WPU, short of a 6.25 percent increase proposed by Gov. Gary Herbert.

The $30 million proposed in HB28 would be more than enough for a 1 percent WPU increase, and union leaders are asking that their request of 5 percent be met before the proposal for professional development.

"We're looking for the most local control possible, getting as much money to the local (schools) to make the determinations of how they're going to spend that money," said Sara Jones, UEA's director of government relations and political action.

Lawmakers raised the possibility that the extra funding would make available dollars already being spent on professional development, allowing schools to meet other needs. Legislators also favored giving specific direction for how the money is spent.

"Theoretically, unless they want to double down, this frees up those funds they've been using for professional development," said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. "I think from a state level, this is an appropriate use, to step in and say, 'We believe this is a priority.'"

The bill passed the committee in a 10-3 vote and now goes to the House for consideration.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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