On Jan. 23, the next legislative session begins, and already there are close to 100 bills waiting to be passed by the Legislature in regard to education. One can understand why the Legislature takes such interest in public education for our state, as the education budget constitutes the bulk of funding for our state. However, even with the large amount of the state budget appropriated to education, our state still ranks well below all other states in regard to per pupil funding. Thus we struggle with quality instruction because of high class size, lower educator wages and overall funding for quality programs.
However, of more concern is a trend that began several years ago as a proposal for vouchers — that is, providing students with vouchers to obtain their education from private sources. Resoundingly, that law was struck down by voters. But in the last legislative session, there was another attempt to provide public dollars for private education. During the last legislative session an "online bill" passed that allowed students to take online classes from private providers, with the district sending a hefty portion of the WPU (weighted pupil unit) to the private institution for the online credit.
The student only had to go online a reasonable number of times and give up one of his/her "brick and mortar" classes to qualify. (No determination was made for who was responsible physically for the student during this class period.)
Another decision by the Legislature made it impossible for a student to attend a class at the Utah College of Applied Technology in their area without the district counting the WPU generated for that class against their funding for the upcoming year. Since there was no data for 2010 that was considered accurate, the cut in funding of $5 million was absorbed by all students statewide, which again decreased the WPU for Utah students.
This decision makes it impossible for schools to provide students the possibility of graduating ready to go to work in several professions, such as automotive technology, medical technology, drafting, welding, etc. Ultimately, these decisions have made it harder for students to acquire a "quality education."
As the upcoming session begins, there are several bills that expand on the idea of "backpack funding," another version of allowing students funding for 32 credits only, but allowing them to use it wherever they wish, at private or public educational providers.
The sad part of all this is that it limits the experiences and offerings students have had over many years. No longer can a student take a concentration of classes in the arts, a foreign language or a technical field because they only have 32 credit funded opportunities, with 24 of those going toward classes required for a state diploma which allows them eight credits of experiential learning in their chosen field over four years.
As those who pay for and take advantage of the quality educational programs of the state, we must help our Legislature understand the need for educational choice for all of our students. Some of these students need extra classes for remediation and exploration or just to sharpen their skills in order for them to walk into a career or college as they exit our schools.
One size does not fit all our students. They are not a product that comes off an assembly line. They are individuals with talents, shortcomings and strengths that, as a result of our quality educational system for all students, have made this country the greatest in the world. We value individuals and what they bring to our communities, states and nation. Let us work to continue that support.
As a long time educator — including nine years on the State Board of Education serving and striving to enable great public charter choice — and with my children teaching in both private, alternative and public educational systems and my grandchildren attending public and private education, I clearly understand the value of choice, but not at the expense of quality education on an individual basis for all our children.
I hope we can refocus on quality educational offerings and systems to provide the best possible educational system for our children.
Dixie Allen is the vice chair of the State Board of Education. She represents District 14.