Efforts to improve middle schools were the gem of the 1998 Legislature, public education officials say.

While a measure to create a middle schools task force failed, middle-level discussions are expected to spill into upcoming legislative sessions, said Doug Bates, coordinator of law and legislation for the State Office of Education.Middle-level education must address unique needs, including delicate self-esteem and surfacing tendencies for at-risk behaviors, education officials say.

"Those students need meaningful contact with adults," said Utah Education Association President Phyllis Sorensen.

Teachers may reach more students under class-size reduction efforts in grades seven and eight. Lawmakers gave $9 million to decrease classes by two students.

Yet lawmakers put off a bill some say could have helped keep kids on track. A bill that would fine parents of habitually truant children after efforts to shepherd kids back to class was referred to interim study.

"Now, we've lost another year to focus on early intervention," said Susan Kuziak, UEA advocacy programs director.

In transportation matters, a bill giving school districts $350,000 for hazardous bus routes failed in the Senate.

In educational reform, lawmakers approved forming eight pilot charter schools, which offer parental choice and specialize in curricula, such as technology. The State Board of Education will grant charters, possibly raising the ire of local school boards. Some question the reform's longevity.

"If by the charter schools movement we get parents and educators enthusiastic about schools, the effort clearly is worth it," Bates said. "But it's hard to maintain initial bursts of enthusiasm."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Action taken for education

- The Legislature passed a $9 million bill for seventh- and eighth-grade class-size reduction. The money could decrease class sizes by two students.

- The state's basic public education funding formula, the weighted pupil unit, will increase 3.5 percent, bringing the total to $1,854.

- Parents will have new education choices with eight pilot charter schools. Such schools may specialize in curricula from arts to technology.

- Character education was saved with a $400,000 appropriation.

- Lawmakers gave the nod to a bill allowing affected local boards, not annexations, determine whether to disturb school district boundaries.

- An approved bill gives the State Office of Education access to rap sheets, not just convictions, in criminal background checks for teacher certification.

- The governor has signed a bill allowing school districts to increase taxes to ease transportation costs.

- Lawmakers approved a bill directing the State Office of Education to study feasibility of commercial advertising in public schools.

- The Legislature directed the state school superintendent to keep track of class time missed for extracurricular activities.

- A measure to offer education tax credits to private school patrons passed the Senate but died in the House Rules Committee.

- Senate-approved legislation to prevent paycheck deductions for donations to the Utah Education Association never reached the House floor.