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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Kindergartner Anthony Carrillo Rodriguez draws a picture during science class at Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah families next year may have more chances to enroll their children in preschool and extended-day kindergarten, a step that educators say will help struggling students get ahead in reading.

State dollars could bring on more coaching and support staff to help teachers in the classroom — a needed addition in light of teacher shortages and a high rate of burnout among new instructors.

A proposed statue may also give charter schools a boost in funding next year, addressing concerns from administrators that charters have been "grossly" underfunded compared to district schools.

These and other proposals impacting students and their families are set for debate in the 2016 legislative session starting Monday. And with almost half of Utah's $14.2 billion budget going to education, schools will once again be a top focus for the Legislature.

"My No. 1 issue is going to be, again, education and the funding of education," Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday during his monthly news conference on KUED-Ch.7. "And I appreciate the fact that the Legislature has embraced that concept, too. It's not just me. It's really all the stakeholders coming together, and I'm pleased that we've seen over the last four years about $1.4 billion of new money put into education."

Here's a look at what parents, teachers and educators can follow as the 2016 legislative session kicks off.

Funding requests

As a start to new funding requests, education leaders and the governor are asking the Legislature for more than $90 million for enrollment growth. That amount would cover about 9,700 students projected to enter Utah's education system next fall.

Without it, class sizes would increase as the same amount of funding is stretched across a larger number of students. But education leaders expect growth to be fully funded this year.

"We always set growth as our first priority. We don't take it lightly," said David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education.

In addition, policymakers may provide $20.8 million in one-time money to make up for a shortfall in last year's enrollment projections, which were off by almost 3,400 students.

Lawmakers will also discuss a possible increase to the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, Utah's formula for equalized student funding. Money in the formula is distributed to districts and charter schools, allowing them to spend it on teacher training and salaries, curriculum, technology and other local needs.

The State School Board is asking for a 3.5 percent increase to the WPU, about $91 million in new money. In his budget proposal, Herbert asked for a 4.75 percent increase, which would bring about $130 million.

In total, the State School Board has requested more than $395 million in new money for schools, and the governor's request for public education reached $281 million.

It's unclear how those requests will pan out as lawmakers grapple with other funding priorities. Last year, the Legislature ended with about $512 million in new money for public and higher education, including a 4 percent increase to the WPU and a property tax increase of $75 million.

This year's surplus favors education through the income tax, but lawmakers say sales tax revenues for the general fund could remain flat. Education leaders are still optimistic.

"Funding I think will come out of the Legislature relatively similar to what we got out of 2015," Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said in December. "Going into it, the governor's budget is basically devoting a large portion of growth in the system to the K-12 system. I don't see that the Legislature will do anything dramatically different."

The Utah State Office of Education announced this month that Smith will take a 90-day leave of absence to address health concerns and won't be present during the 45-day legislative session.

Other funding priorities from the State School Board include a $100 million proposal for a statewide technology grant program, $30 million for teacher professional learning, $15 million for special education and $4 million for the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program.

Education officials acknowledge the difficulty in funding each item, especially without raising property or income taxes. But that task would be easier if the education fund was entirely devoted to K-12 schools, which was the fund's original legislative intent, instead of allocating 15 percent of it to higher education, according to Crandall.

"We feel that anybody who supports an increase in tax to support public education should first support using the education fund for public education without the need to raise taxes. Anybody who does differently is just using schools as an excuse to raise taxes," he said.

In an effort to address the issue, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a resolution this year that would amend the Utah Constitution to exclude higher education from receiving revenue from the state's income tax. In this year's budget, higher education received almost $564 million from the education fund — money that would go to K-12 schools under the proposal.

But the amendment would require approval from voters, and Utah's Democratic legislators have acknowledged diverting the money away from higher education will be a "hard political pull."

Early childhood education

Expanded options for families hoping to enroll their students in preschool and extended-day kindergarten emerged early as a focus for the 2016 session.

Herbert has proposed diverting $10 million in earmarked transportation funds to the education fund for optional extended-day kindergarten, a move that has been supported by the State School Board.

Joining them are organizations such as United Way of Salt Lake, Prosperity 2020, Education First and the Salt Lake Chamber, which point to early childhood education as playing a critical role in improving reading and math scores for minority and at-risk children.

For example, in 2013, 75 percent of economically disadvantaged third-graders in the Granite School District who had attended preschool scored proficiently in language arts. That's compared to 57 percent of their low-income classmates who didn't attend preschool, according to district officials.

Last summer and fall, legislators considered setting aside $8 million in ongoing funds to be awarded to schools as grants through the Utah School Readiness Initiative, a public-private partnership for preschool funding. But that appropriation has yet to be voted on.

Similarly, educators see extended-day kindergarten as another opportunity to boost the chances for at-risk students of reading on grade level and performing proficiently in other subjects later on. Smith said he hopes the impact and measurability of those programs will entice lawmakers to increase funding for early learning.

"I think we will see an appetite for more outcome-based programs, like optional extended-day kindergarten or pre-kindergarten programs that have strong accountability features built into them," he said. "That's one thing I'm looking forward to."

Two bills for optional extended-day kindergarten have already been adopted as committee bills by the Education Interim Committee.

HB42 would allocate $17.5 million in ongoing money for competitive grants for districts looking to expand full-day kindergarten offerings. That program would target students identified as at-risk through kindergarten entry assessments, free or reduced-price lunch programs and other metrics.

The other bill, HB41, gives schools the option of charging a fee to families who enroll in extended-day kindergarten programs. Revenue from the fee would be used to hire additional kindergarten teachers.

Fee amounts would likely be unique to each district or charter school, but the bill currently ensures that "no student is denied the opportunity to participate in the supplemental hours because of an inability to pay."

Both programs would be optional for students and their families. And involving families in the early education process is key to making an academic impact on the student, according to Tami Pyfer, education adviser to the governor.

"We just want to engage in a higher level so that we are helping spread this message of the importance of early learning in Utah, and parents are absolutely key to that conversation," Pyfer said. "You'll be seeing us engage in some programs or initiatives to engage parents better."

Charter schools

Last year, the Legislature commissioned a task force of lawmakers and educators to consider whether Utah should revise the way it funds charter schools, which now represent more than 60,000 students.

Since charter schools do not have the taxing authority, school districts are required to share a portion of their property tax revenues with charters. And because property tax revenues aren't equalized across the state, lawmakers created the local replacement formula to supplement those funds. Last year, that average was $1,746 per student for charters.

But the difference between districts and charters in the way students are counted has added to the complexity and controversy of charter school funding. Charters base their per-student funding on an Oct. 1 census, which remains unchanged for the rest of the year.

Traditional schools, however, take an "average daily membership" throughout the year, allowing them to adjust their funding amounts as students move in and out.

"That would create some tension," Howard Headlee, chairman of the State Charter School Board, said during a Utah Taxpayers Association conference this month.

The task force also found inequality between districts and charters in other supplemental funds, Headlee said. For districts that have a high tax effort but a low revenue yield, the state has provided extra funding, called the state guarantee. But the state guarantee has not been included in the local replacement fund for charters.

That has led to charters being "grossly" underfunded, Headlee said. When budget comparisons include the state guarantee, only three school districts — Sevier, Weber and Wayne — spend less than the amount charters receive.

Headlee said it's a difference of almost $500 per student, resulting in a $30 million shortfall for charters each year.

"That's a huge number that we've been shorting to charter school students for over a decade. It's a big deal," he said.

But the task force settled on several measures to address the problems. SB38 would allow charters to adjust their funding as student numbers change throughout the year. Moreover, the bill would include state guarantee dollars in the local replacement fund for charters, as well as provisions for charter student transportation.

"I think the Legislature will adopt the task force's recommendations," Headlee said.

Other bills

So far, more than 80 education bills have either been numbered or are still in the drafting process for this year. One of them is HB28, which educators are eyeing closely as it would set aside $30 million in ongoing money for teacher coaching and support.

Training for teachers was echoed as a priority by the State School Board, which also put the initiative high on its funding priority list. But it underscores the need to make teacher salaries more competitive in Utah, according to Crandall.

"If our teaching profession really empowered teachers through individual choice and responsibility to take control of their own professional careers," he said, "then we would be able to build a compensation system that would attract new talent into our classrooms."

Lawmakers will also revisit an issue that proved challenging last year. Since a federal judge ruled in 2014 that Utah's election system for State School Board members is unconstitutional, the Legislature has so far failed to agree on a proper alternative, such as partisan and nonpartisan elections, or having the governor appoint them.

About a half-dozen bills sought to change the system last year, and each was ultimately struck down. But SB46, labeled as a new "compromise bill," would reduce the number of board members from 15 to 13 and make five of them appointed by the governor, four chosen in a nonpartisan election, and the other four elected in a partisan race.

Another bill would keep portions of the current election system, which uses a committee to make recommendations to the governor as to which names should go on the ballot. SB78 would clarify how those candidates are chosen and what qualifications are most needed for the job.

Another returning issue is technology, calling for a 1-to-1 student device program. Lawmakers last year decided not to fund a $75 million request for student devices but instead commissioned a task force to examine the needs and feasibility of such a large-scale program.

With an implementation plan ready, education leaders are once again asking the state for funds to administer a technology grant program, which, they say, would take $50 million in one-time money and an equal portion in ongoing money. That request stands just below other key priorities on the State School Board's funding request.

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