SALT LAKE CITY — At-risk students would have the opportunity to participate in two hours of additional schooling each day under the terms of a bill formally supported Thursday by the State School Board.
The unnumbered bill, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, calls for $5 million to create a program that would allow elementary schools to apply for a grant to provide extended-day services to the children of families affected by intergenerational poverty.
"We focus primarily on adults, believing that it will trickle down, but it doesn’t work," Reid said of the ongoing war on poverty. "The approach I thought we would venture out into is to have a data-driven approach so it's based on facts, based on the data, with a focus on children."
Reid said children from economically challenged families too often get trapped in a cycle of poverty, becoming discouraged while falling behind their peers and eventually dropping out of school. That leads to statistically higher instances of teen pregnancy, drug use and crime, he said.
Breaking that cycle requires interventions, Reid said, adding that ideally he would like to see state agencies working with educators to both provide help at home while offering additional resources at school.
"We have an obligation as adults to intervene," he said. "We have an obligation to do it another way."
The bill, which was prepared with help from the Utah State Office of Education, calls for teachers to be paid their hourly rate to extend their workday by 2 ½ hours, allowing 30 minutes of preparation and two hours of classroom time for all 180 days of the school year.
Participation in the after-school program would be voluntary and targeted at children whose families are affected by intergenerational poverty.
State Superintendent Martell Menlove said the intent is to have the same teachers students are engaged with during the day teaching the after-hours program. The $5 million would allow for 250 classrooms at roughly $20,000 each, he said.
Reid said that while initially limited to 250 classrooms, he expects the program to yield results that generate support to be extend throughout the state.
"I’d like to have every child, where it’s manageable, that’s part of this (at-risk) population to be able to get the additional help and training in school to help them be competitive and successful in life," he said.
The specifics of the grant program's management and design is left undefined to allow educators to create what they deem to be the most effective model, Reid said. From now until the bill goes up for debate, any changes to the language will be made by the State School Board, he said.
"I’m trying to get the Legislature out of the business of telling you how to do things," Reid told board members.
Board member David Thomas commented that Reid's bill aligns with the board's legislative priorities for the year, which include early intervention initiatives.
"We were talking about having a menu of options where schools could come in and ask for grants," Thomas said. "This could be one of those key components of that initiative."
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, also presented to the board some of his proposed bills for the 2014 session, including several pieces of legislation that represent altered versions of bills that failed to gain support last year.
Among those bills is a funding request for high-quality public preschool as a way to target economically disadvantaged students. Osmond described the bill as the most important piece of legislation he will sponsor this year. Like Reid, he presented his plan as a tool for disrupting families caught in a cycle of poverty.
"We need to unify behind this issue, and that’s the issue of early education for our most at-risk students in the state," Osmond said.
In last year's version of the bill, Osmond called for the creation of public-private funding partnerships where private investors would loan money to the state for preschool expansion with the understanding that they would be repaid with interest if the interventions proved successful.
Osmond said Thursday he did a poor job managing the politics of the bill, which ultimately failed to clear the Senate.
"I did not anticipate the reaction that we had from both inside and outside the Legislature," he said.
The year, Osmond said he is proposing a simplified bill that calls for a direct funding request of $6 million from the Education Fund in place of a private loan structure.
But while investment in early education is a priority of the State School Board, several members expressed concern that the funding for Osmond's bill would ultimately draw money away from the amount of per-pupil funding schools receive.
Board member Leslie Castle asked if there is any other way to fund the preschool services, saying pulling from the Education Fund would undermine years of work to increase the level of per-pupil funding.
"It makes a statement that I think is really disheartening to me," Castle said.
Osmond said it is not his intention to threaten per-pupil funding, but that targeted early childhood interventions are critical to improving the performance of at-risk students.
"I don’t know where else to pull it from," he said. "At the end of the day, this is an incremental revenue (request), and it's an education program."
Osmond also presented a bill aimed at addressing the disparity between school district property tax revenue, a frequent talking point among lawmakers that has been the focus of several bills, including one sponsored by Osmond last year that failed to reach the House.
Under current law, property value increases are met with coinciding decreases in tax rates to maintain revenue neutrality. But Osmond's bill would freeze the basic tax rates, allowing schools to collect additional funds that result from an increase in property values.
Those funds would be distributed through school land trust accounts, he said, under the discretion of school community councils and local administrators.
"Any increase becomes new money," Osmond said. "Now it's actually new money that would be brought into the system."
Osmond said the bill he sponsored last year — pejoratively dubbed a "Robin Hood" bill for potentially moving money from affluent districts to cash-strapped areas of the state — gained "zero support" from school districts and a divided response from lawmakers.
But he expressed confidence that the changes he has made could generate support, as well as added resources for schools.
"It’s not increasing the tax rate, but it is increasing new revenue," Osmond said. "It is, I believe, a bill that many of my colleagues will support."
As of Thursday, roughly 65 bills or bill requests had been filed for the 2014 Legislature on the subject of education.
Among those bills are three that would alter the way State School Board members are elected, revisions to suicide prevention statutes, a resolution recognizing the 100th anniversary of Davis High School and two bills dealing with religious freedom in the classroom.
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