SALT LAKE CITY — Per-pupil funding versus technology in schools.
That was the crux of debate Thursday as the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee finalized its budget priorities and funding recommendations for the 2014 Legislature.
As described by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, funding recommendations at this point are only "placeholders" subject to updated revenue projections and the actions of the Executive Appropriations Committee.
But some lawmakers expressed concern that those placeholders included $25 million in additional per-pupil spending — or a 1 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit — and $100 million in one-time and ongoing funding for House Speaker Becky Lockhart's proposal for a statewide school technology upgrade.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, initially proposed that $32.5 million be added to the per-pupil increase — for a total increase of 2.5 percent, matching Gov. Gary Herbert's budget recommendation — at the expense of the technology modernization plan.
Osmond said he supports Lockhart's proposal to update learning technology in schools, but the funds for that proposal should come out of the state's general fund and not at the expense of existing education programs.
"I believe that we need to do it from an investment perspective rather than a takeaway perspective," he said. "We ought to at least make our recommendations knowing the (Executive Appropriations Committee) is going to do what they’re going to do."
But Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who is sponsoring the modernization legislation, said the proposal to move classrooms toward 21st century learning is a novel goal compared with the annual debates that surround per-pupil spending.
"For that last three years, we have raised the WPU. We have funded Social Security and retirement, and we have funded growth," Gibson said. "The modernization act is a vision of where we want to be 10 years from now, and it has to start somewhere."
Per-pupil spending, and specifically the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, is the basic funding unit used in school and district allocations. Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending rate in the nation, and educators say an increase of at least 2 percent is necessary to cover obligations related to Social Security and retirement costs.
Funding from the WPU is also used for educator compensation, meaning the state's per-pupil funding levels is directly related to teacher pay and classroom sizes.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said any increases to the WPU come at the expense of targeted investments. He referenced other funding priorities, from the modernization proposal to initiatives in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and said, in comparison, per-pupil spending is the least innovative area of education funding.
"I think a WPU increase of 1 percent is sufficient," Urquhart said. "We're not getting innovation by funding the WPU."
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, challenged that statement. He said local schools and districts can be laboratories for new ideas and that he has personally seen innovation at the district level that state lawmakers have little power to replicate.
Without providing funding for existing obligations, Nielson said, school districts would be forced to trim programs to cover costs.
"I think we must provide enough of an increase that it will at least cover administrative expenses," he said.
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, co-chairman of the committee, suggested it is unwise to tether per-pupil spending to the fate of Lockhart's technology proposal, which "is going to happen."
Following Last's recommendation, the committee voted to recommended a WPU increase of 2.5 percent, independent of the funding for technology modernization.
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