The up-and-down fortunes of the 1991 Legislature left public education with adequate funding and little in the way of restructuring.
Unlike the 1990 session, when there was a hue and cry for change in the way education is delivered, the 1991 go-round concentrated on financial issues with very few bills that substantially changed the overall process.However, a bill did pass that will provide $800,000 for 16 schools in Utah to experiment with site-based management. The schools will be encouraged to use innovative ways to involve administrators, teachers, parents, the public and even students in making school decisions.
Legislators also passed a bill that will create a screening process for State School Board Members. Seven-member panels in each of the school board districts will select three to five nominees, and the governor will name two to be on the election ballot. The measure follows three years of attempts to either do away with the elected board or change the method of selecting members.
The confused funding process this year left education leaders exhausted as they tried to tally the effects that would be created by a variety of financing proposals.
"It was the worst I've ever seen in terms of agreeing on numbers to work from," said State Superintendent Jay B. Taggart. "All of the early budget hearings were based on incorrect data. The first four weeks of the session were a waste of time. That's unfair to Utah's schoolchildren."
When the dust had cleared, Taggart conceded that - in a system that demands compromises - education did not fare badly. Anticipated growth in the upcoming year will be funded and standard programs will be adequately covered. The total minimum education program received $1.099 billion.
Teachers will "feel very let down," said Utah Education Association President Lily Eskelsen. There will be a 3.2 percent increase on the negotiation tables in most local districts - about half the 6 percent cost of living increase nationwide in the past year.
Teachers had high expectations based on last year's rhetoric, Eskelsen said, only to find that the Legislature "didn't put the money where the rhetoric was." She anxiously waited on the House floor in the vain hope that a Democratic effort to shift money from here and there to provide more for education and human services would work. It didn't.
Several side issues that had been bottled up waiting for money matters to be resolved finally passed. They included $4 million for reducing first-grade class loads by an average of three students.
Technology funding snags
Funding for a second year of a proposed four-year school technology program hit a snag in the Senate when senators dug their heels in to demand that the private sector ante up its share of the ambitious program. Over the four-year period, legislators hoped that a joint effort of the state, business, school districts and technology vendors would put up to $200 million in technology into Utah schools.
The state provided $13.5 million for public education and $1.5 million for higher education last year. The public education amount was cut this year to $11.9 million. Failure of the private sector to raise a dollar for every two state dollars could jeopardize the project, said Sen. Stephen J. Rees, R-Salt Lake.
He sponsored amendments to last year's bill that will cut off the state funding for the program next year unless private sources produce their share.
"I just put some teeth into the arrangement," he said.
Proposals to put significant amounts of new money into special education and vocational education programs dwindled into near nothing as the budget crunch went into full effect.
Lawmakers passed bills that will:
- Extend education scholarships to students at private schools as well as state teacher training institutions.
- Encourage parents to become more involved in their children's educational processes.
- Reauthorize a strategic planning committee to develop long-range education plans.
- Press the federal government for a larger share of education funds for Utah.
Lawmakers failed to approve legislation that would have:
- Required more school nurses. The costs would have exceeded $20 million over five years.
- Authorized study of school districts to determine optimal sizes. The bill could have required that large districts be divided.
- Created a state lottery to help finance education.
- Expanded drug-free zones to include areas where minors congregate.
- Dealt with a number of bills designed to equalize local school taxes.