SALT LAKE CITY — More than 100 pieces of education-related legislation were sponsored during the 2014 legislative session, which drew to a close Thursday at midnight.
Bills dealt with everything from truancy to Advanced Placement testing, all with an eye toward preparing Utah's children for success in school and beyond. But whether new laws will contribute to academic success remains to be seen.
"There’s not a business in this country that could survive with that many policy changes every single year," Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "We no sooner get going when it’s changed for us."
State Superintendent Martell Menlove said the goals of public education are focused in three key areas: third-grade reading, eighth-grade math and high school graduation.
He said third grade received the most direct support from lawmakers with the passage of bills aimed at-risk students before and during the critical elementary years.
"We need to identify those student who need that help and provide the appropriate interventions for them," Menlove said. "I think all of these bills, hopefully, will meet those students most at risk and we’ll see some impacts as they enter school and as they move through the school system."
Lawmakers approved $3 million in ongoing funding for UPSTART, a home-based preschool program for at-risk students, and $1 million in ongoing funding for SB43, a bill that allows schools provide tutoring for children affected by intergenerational poverty.
Another bill, HB96, generated significant discussion at the Capitol for its unique funding structure. By seeking private investors, HB96 allows low-performing students to participate in high quality preschool programs with the state obligated to repay the original loans if those students successfully avoid costly special education.
"There’s been a lot more information given to legislators about the value of Pre-K and especially the value of Pre-K for at-risk populations," House Speaker Becky Lockhart said. "I have no concerns about the value of high quality preschool education, it’s the funding mechanism (of HB96) that for me is a little bit troublesome."
Dawn Davies, president-elect of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, credited the Governor's Education Excellence Commission and the Education Task Force with the change of attitudes toward high quality preschool. Both groups provided opportunities throughout the year for lawmakers, educators and community advocates to discuss specific goals and strategies.
"Realizing that early intervention is key took the task force to be heard and now you see something move forward that will hopefully help those students in early education who need it," she said.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education – or STEM – received a $20 million boost in HB150, but lawmakers passed on directing targeted investments toward the hiring of additional high school academic counselors, which is seen as a strategy to improve graduation rates.
"The goal of high school completion is probably the one that we don’t see anything coming directly out of this session to look at," Menlove said.
The signature piece of legislative action toward higher education was a $50 million appropriation in acute equity funding, which will be used to correct dwindling per-student revenues at Utah's fastest-growing schools.
Under a pre-determined agreement, Utah Valley University will receive roughly $21 million of acute equity funding, with Salt Lake Community College receiving $15.5 million, the regional campuses of Utah State University receiving $5.5 million, Weber State University receiving $4.5 million and Dixie State University receiving $3.5 million.
"We’ve been very united as a system, which I think has helped the Legislature to be able to feel like we’re speaking with one voice," David Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education, said.
The state is currently working toward a goal to increase degree attainment by 2020, but Buhler said strains on campus budgets have resulted in "bottlenecks" that slow a student's path to graduation.
Enrollment dipped last year, but Buhler said the student population is expected to increase as campuses increase recruitment efforts with an eye toward the 2020 goal.
"Our enrollment has been down slightly but we believe that’s going to turn around in the very near future and it would be a shame if people are coming home or trying to come back to school and there’s no room" Buhler said.
Both public and higher education walked away from the session with significant boosts to their base budgets, but the defeat of a school technology proposal illustrated the obstacles that impede major reform.
The Public Education Modernization Act, or HB131, called for $200 million for learning devices and dominated debate during the session. The bill threatened to grind budget negotiations to a halt before it fell to a hard-line stance by Senators and a veto threat by the governor.
"Until you fully fund education, I’m not sure you can move to something that will take the entire education budget," Davies said.
Gallagher-Fishbaugh said she appreciated aspects of the bill, but was worried about how the cost would affect other programs.
"I find it interesting and concerning, quite frankly, (the idea) that we could find $200 million for machines and technology, but when educators and experts in the field are saying that we need the basic funding needs met, that falls on deaf ears," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
Two bills sponsored this year suggest a shifting of the tectonic plates in Utah's tax-averse Legislature. The Senate passed SB111, which would freeze the basic property tax rate, as a mechanism to fund school technology and a bill to limit income tax exemptions received committee support.
"My goal was to get it through committee," Sen. Patrice Jones, D-Holladay, said of her income tax bill. "I completely achieved my objective this year."
Jones said she heard from several colleagues that her bill, SB118, prompted discussions on the need for a new approach to education funding. She said she believes her bill, in one form or another, will eventually be passed into law.
"I’ve been told this changed the dialogue, which I think will be a legacy I can be proud of," she said.
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