Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Utah State Capitol, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — During a break in action on Capitol Hill recently Senate President Wayne Niederhauser described the frustration he's felt over the past six years as a state lawmaker.

The Sandy Republican said that too often he is presented with a bill and tasked with voting "yea" or "nay" despite having little or no context on how the policy would contribute to a larger state plan.

"I would like to have, and I think a lot of the other members of our body would like to have, an idea of where we’re headed," he said. "That way we can focus on bills and policy that get us to that target."

His statement was similar to one made at the start of the Legislative session by the Utah Democratic Party on the subject of public education in the state. Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City and Utah Democratic Party chairman, described the state of education as "catastrophic" and said Democrats were more than willing to work with their colleagues in the majority party if there was some consensus on what they should be working toward.

"Give us a vision, that's what we're asking," Dabakis said. "We're ready to march."

Niederhauser said he and colleagues in the Senate, particularly Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, first began thinking of the need for a long-term education plan, against which future education bills could be weighed and prioritized. By doing that, he said, lawmakers would be able to avoid spending undue time on bills that do little to advance, or distract from, the state's objectives.

That thinking led to SB169, which Reid sponsored, that would create an education task force comprised of majority and minority leadership from both the House and Senate as well as the chairpersons of the House and Senate education committees and the public and higher education appropriations committees.

Niederhauser said the purpose of the task force would be to determine what education in Utah should look like 10 years from now and to hopefully steer Legislative thinking in that direction.

"If we have even changed the course of the legislature five or ten degrees towards more long-term thinking versus a more short-term or reactive thinking I will have considered our efforts a success," he said.

Bills with purpose

Reid said that often bills are presented to the Legislature that appear meritorious, but potentially draw resources away from legislation that advances a larger statewide cause. He envisions the task force resulting in more vision, direction, coordination and discipline when it comes to new education laws.

He envisions the task force being able to establish a set of outcome priorities and directing work at the hill to determine what needs to happen, how long it should take and what resources are available.

"It provides a more rigorous filter for legislation that on its own may appear worthy of our time and resources but may be a distraction," he said.

Reid's bill is not alone in calling for long-term planning. The 2013 session has so far seen an emerging trend in calls for collaboration and deliberation and initiatives that look years into the future.

In her opening remarks for the 2013 session, House Speaker Becky Lockhart urged her colleagues to exercise caution and focus on priorities in proposing legislation. She said lawmakers pass too many bills each year and criticized the governor for not making more frequent use of his veto powers.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, that would incentivize school districts to look into the adoption of outcomes-based innovations such as data-driven instruction, extended school years and blended learning.

A concurrent resolution, SCR5, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton would express the Legislature's support for a state goal of two-thirds of Utah's adults holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. That resolution has so far cleared the Senate and will now be considered by the House.

Meanwhile a bill to place a cap on elementary class sizes – a common source of complaint against Utah schools – stalled in committee amidst concerns that the bill's lack of funding would be a detriment to class size reduction efforts. Educators agree that smaller classes are preferred to meet the needs of individual students, but in the past two years, bills that would address class size have failed to reach a consensus on just how to pay for it and what other costs may be.

A possible solution

Reid wants lawmakers to establish benchmarks and then allow the state school board to formulate a plan and return with funding requests. For example, the Legislature could set a goal of median class size, but it would be up to educators to develop a program to reach that goal and to report back to the lawmakers on what funding is necessary.

He said doing that would empower educators and would better align the distinct but collaborative roles of the state school board and state Legislature.

"Let the experts tell us how they can get to these outcomes and expectations," he said.

Niederhauser said that long-term planning not only makes for better legislation, but also relieves a burden placed on schools. With the high volume of new laws put in statute each year, he said lawmakers' actions can sometimes present a distraction that gets in the way of educating Utah's children.

"Once we know where we’re headed, then we’ll talk about some steps that get us there," Niederhauser said. "Oftentimes, (educators) are inundated with new programs and new ideas and we need to simplify their lives and simplify their work so it’s focused on student outcomes."

Legislative inundation is a common complaint, typically raised by educators, as school districts and administrators are perpetually tasked with implementing the latest directives from Capitol Hill. With many new laws calling for a phase-in over a series of several years, it can seem like new statute arrives before the old law's ink has a chance to dry.

Brenda Hales, deputy state superintendent of public instruction, said she is impressed by the current atmosphere of collaboration and deliberation at the Legislature. She said it is the continuation of a trend in recent years, in which lawmakers and education officials recognize they're working toward a common goal.

"Let’s slow down a little bit and consolidate what we’re doing and make sure that we’re spending money wisely and it's not just going to new programs that pop up each year," she said. "I think there’s an acknowledgement that the various groups – us, the governor’s office, the Legislature – they’re all trying to accomplish the same thing and it's better if we try to do it together."

Dabakis said he likes what Reid is trying to accomplish, but he said he hopes a task force or any long-term planning would lead to a vision of not only what the structure of education in Utah should be, but also the funding. He said the governor and many lawmakers view funding growth each year as a "victory," but that only preserves the status quo and the time may have come to consider raising taxes.

Searching for money

A poll released lass month by Exoro and the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration found that 55 percent of Utah voters support raising taxes to fund education. Gov. Gary Herbert has long maintained that a healthy and growing economy is the best and most secure way to secure education funding, as tax increases would stifle economic development.

Dabakis also said that some of his colleagues in the majority party have the opinion that increased funding can't be considered until every instance of waste and inefficiency has been eradicated from the public education system. But while lawmakers strive to find the perfect educational structure, Dabakis said, Utah's students continue to see burgeoning class sizes while the state languishes with the lowest per-pupil funding in the country. 

"Republicans have been running this train for 30 years, if they haven’t gotten rid of the waste, fraud and abuse by now, when? Is there a day? Is there a year?" Dabakis said. "I am tired of hearing ‘Oh, we can’t just throw money at it.’ You know, we’ve tried everything else, let’s try throwing a little money at it and see if that works."

Reid said the appropriation of state funds is the fundamental responsibility of the Legislature and the task force would consider all of the neccessary means to improve student performance.

"Certainly, we will discuss what it will take to obtain excellence in student achievement, including what revenues are required," Reid said.

The state school board has taken a position of support on Reid's task force bill, Hales said. She added that the board hopes to be included in the task force's discussion of educational goals and outcomes.

Niederhauser said his intent as a member of the task force is to include the various education stakeholders and interested groups in the discussion, such as the state school board, the Governor's Education Excellence Commission and Prosperity 2020, a public/private partnership focused on improving student performance.  

"We want to bring all those good ideas together to help formulate and educated the legislature on where we’re going," he said.