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$100M classroom tech bill gets preliminary OK, but full funding not likely

Published: Thursday, Feb. 11 2016 8:25 p.m. MST

File — Rep. Marie Poulson speaks at a rally to Support Healthy Utah at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 5, 2015. Poulson said she won't vote for the bill until a larger increase to per-pupil spending is on the table.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A statewide classroom technology proposal that lawmakers say "represents years worth of work" earned preliminary approval in the Utah Legislature Thursday.

Members of the House Education Committee were vocal in supporting SB277, a bill that would provide grant funding for schools to put technology devices into the hands of students, provide training for educators and maintain a long-term vision of how it all should improve academic performance.

"This is a very wide-ranging program. (Schools) can apply for grant funds for professional development, they can apply for software, they can apply for upgrades to their existing technology, perhaps they're in need of tech support," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman. "These are things that every (school) in our state can take advantage of."

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that commissioned a task force to study the technology needs of Utah schools and to formulate a comprehensive implementation plan.

That plan is included in this year's bill, which asks for $100 million to provide qualifying grants for schools that choose to get started or enhance their existing technology program.

But the proposal's hefty price tag has been a perennial source of debate and hesitation among lawmakers, especially in light of other education needs, such as funding enrollment growth and yearly increases to per-pupil spending.

In a preliminary budget proposal from the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, lawmakers on Thursday sliced the proposed appropriation for the technology bill down to $15 million in one-time money and $10 million of ongoing funds.

Knotwell acknowledged that funding the full $100 million this year is "not likely," but that the priority going forward is "to decide from a policy perspective if this is the right direction to go."

Even with the funding cuts, education leaders see promise in the bill as the next step in Utah's use of technology in the classroom. David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said if the initiative isn't fully funded, the implementation will be limited. But it's a start.

"The rollout will be slower. But I think it is important to have it as a line item that we can expand on in the future," Crandall said. "I think there is support for getting that technology program rolled out."

Some legislators questioned whether a statewide plan would be as effective as increasing discretionary per-pupil spending money and letting schools implement their own technology program.

But David Thomas, vice chairman of the State School Board and chairman of the task force that developed the proposed plan, said there are multiple benefits to having schools opt in to a statewide program, even if they've already started on their own.

"This gives them a guide. It gives them practices. It allows that accountability. It allows that economy of scale to work," Thomas said.

Not all legislators were convinced. Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she won't vote for the bill until a larger increase to per-pupil spending is on the table.

A preliminary budget proposal for public education seeks to provide a 2.5 percent increase — about $70 million — to the weighted pupil unit, Utah's formula for uniform distribution of discretionary school funding. And another proposal seeking to improve funding equity between district and charter schools would provide the equivalent of another 1.5 percent increase for some schools.

But that's not enough, according to Poulson.

"This is an excellent proposal," Poulson said. "But I'm going to withhold my vote until I get an assurance that this is going to be along with a substantial rise" in the weighted pupil unit.

"There's only so much money in the pot."

Other legislators were quick to speak in favor of the bill and the research that was done last year to inform the proposed implementation plan.

"I've often asked for a long-range plan in education, and we've finally got one," said Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray. "Can we fund the full amount this year? I don't know. We'll see. But we're sending a signal that this is a good plan."

Susan Pulsipher, president of the Jordan School District Board of Education, said teachers and administrators have been watching "with great interest" as the technology implementation master plan has developed.

"We feel that this plan is excellent and that it respects local control. It allows districts to take technology where they are and move it to where it needs to go," Pulsipher said. "We strongly support this plan."

In light of concerns from constituents of federal entanglement into a large-scale technology implementation, legislators considered amending the bill to clarify its origins. Thomas emphasized that the program was developed through a grassroots approach.

"There is nothing in the master plan that is federally driven. It is, in fact, totally locally driven," he said. "That was the purpose — to have this be Utah's plan and not somebody else's plan."

The amendment failed, but it could be voted on again when the bill goes before the full House.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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