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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Hundreds of Utah educators and parents gather Monday, March 11, 2013 at the Utah State Capitol in support of the public education funding.
This demonstrates public support for additional funding in education. Our voices were heard and we are pleased to be able to thank our legislators for the investment in public schools. —Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association

SALT LAKE CITY — What could have been a tense protest was instead an event of celebration as students, parents, teachers and business leaders filled the Capitol rotunda Monday night to not urge but thank lawmakers for their commitment to increase public school funding.

Supporters of public education, including the Utah Education Association, Utah Parent Teacher Association and Prosperity 2020, wore pins with the slogan "Education Pay$" and held banners with such messages as "2 percent is a nice beginning," a reference to the 2 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit or WPU, the basic funding unit for Utah schools.

A 2 percent increase in the WPU, along with a full funding increase for enrollment growth, were the top two legislative priorities of the Utah Board of Education. While the budget will not be fully decided until late Thursday, lawmakers seem poised to answer both requests, allocating more than $70 million for enrollment growth and $50 million for a 2 percent increase of the WPU in the latest budget proposals.

Utah currently ranks lowest in the nation in terms of per-pupil funding, a distinction that likely will not change with the increase of the WPU. The $50 million increase will be largely absorbed by growing retirement and Social Security costs for Utah's educational workforce, with the remainder aiding school districts in classroom resources and teacher-student ratios.

"This is what funding the WPU can do," Sand Ridge Junior High teacher Jennifer Graviet said. "It can give us more time to plan, lower class sizes and it can help us retain and attract the very best teachers."

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, addressed the crowd while standing next to a tall pile of signed statements urging lawmakers to approve the WPU increase. She said there were enough statements signed that, if laid end to end, it would stretch from the state Capitol building down State Street to the City and County Building on 400 South.

"This demonstrates public support for additional funding in education," she said. "Our voices were heard and we are pleased to be able to thank our legislators for the investment in public schools."

Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, described the 2013 Legislative session as "a great year for education" and added that Utah's children were the state's most valuable asset.

"It's been a long time since we've been able to do for education what we've done this year," he said. "There's nothing more important in the state of Utah than our children and there's nothing more important to our future as a state, to our economic growth and becoming what we can be than our children."

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Deon Turley, education commissioner of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, told rally attendees that they were part of a "perfect storm." She said that after years of bad news involving recession-era budget cuts, low per-pupil funding and declining test scores, the education, business and political communities were coming together in a collaborative spirit.

She particularly expressed her thanks for the efforts of Prosperity 2020, a public-private partnership with a focus toward increasing volunteerism in schools and advocating for investment in education.

"Right now we're witnessing a change," she said. "The alarms have gone off and help is coming."

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com