SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's 2016 legislative session ended Thursday with $445 million in new money for public and higher education, exceeding Gov. Gary Herbert's budget request for schools by more than $20 million.
With the budget, lawmakers passed legislation bringing other changes to classrooms, including more opportunities for preschool, a classroom technology grant program, changes to end-of-level testing policy and other issues.
Lawmakers dedicated two-thirds of Utah's new revenues to schools, adding to last year's total budget for K-12 and higher education of nearly $6 billion. That brings the state's total funding increase for education in the past five years up to $1.7 billion.
"I applaud the Legislature," Herbert said. "We have reason to be very optimistic about the future of Utah when it comes to the economy because of the funding that we're putting into education."
For K-12 schools, the new budget adds about $80 million — a 3 percent increase — to the weighted pupil unit, Utah's distribution system for per-pupil funding. In each school, that money could lead to more teachers, higher compensation for educators, better classroom facilities and other local needs.
That increase fell short of what some requested. In his budget proposal, Herbert asked for a 4.75 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit. The Utah State Board of Education requested a boost of 3.5 percent, and the Utah Education Association asked for a 5 percent increase.
Utah schools are expecting an influx of almost 10,000 new students this fall, and the Legislature set aside an additional $90.7 million to accommodate the enrollment growth.
Even though several requests from the Utah State Board of Education weren't fully funded, education leaders say the new funding will make a substantial impact in how schools meet student needs.
"We're pleased. We got full funding of growth and a healthy increase in the weighted pupil unit. We're happy with that," said board chairman David Crandall. "It's a significant increase."
One of the largest education focuses this year involved evening out some funding differences between school districts and charter schools. Lawmakers passed SB38, which sends more than $20 million to charters through a state guarantee that has traditionally been provided only to district schools.
The bill will also create a tax levy specifically for charters so school districts no longer have to collect that funding on behalf of charters, which don't have taxing authority.
The measure will be revenue-neutral for school districts, and it won't mean higher rates for taxpayers. Lawmakers hope it will ease some of the tension that has historically existed between the two school systems because of funding differences.
"We hope that that bill brings a greater measure of agreement between charter public schools and district public schools," said Sandy Republican Steve Eliason, the bill's floor sponsor. "From an equity perspective, I feel like we're in really good shape."
Lawmakers passed a bill to begin a classroom technology grant program for public schools, though the $15 million provided in the bill falls short of the $100 million originally requested. HB277 will help school districts and charters upgrade their technology resources, such as devices, software, training for teachers and other needs.
"Those (schools) who are most ready to go, they're going to be ready and they're going to get those first grants," said State School Board vice chairman David Thomas. "As others get ready, then we'll be able to fund those. But it's going to take some time to do that."
An effort to expand preschool offerings was widely supported by legislators. SB101 will dedicate $11.5 million, mostly in federal money, to give parents more preschool options through private schools, public schools and online home-based programs. That measure is targeted for children in low-income families and those who show early signs of academic struggles.
Utah's colleges and universities also saw funding increases, with $23.8 million for a compensation increase for instructors. Institutions collectively will also get $5 million for developing industry-driven academic programs and $5 million as an incentive to reach student-centered goals.
The Legislature set aside more than $100 million for new college buildings or renovation projects. That includes a new career and technical education building at Salt Lake Community College, a new biology building at Utah State University, a science building at Snow College, a new business building at Southern Utah University, and a new performing arts facility at Utah Valley University.
After years of debate and a handful of legislative proposals, Utah lawmakers settled on a new method of electing Utah's State School Board members Thursday evening. SB78 will implement a nonpartisan election process for board candidates in the 2016 general election cycle. Then in subsequent elections, the process will be partisan.
The previous method was struck down in 2014 by a federal judge who said it violated candidates' free speech rights. But the new system will provide an alternative to help Utahns vet candidates for the State School Board, according to lawmakers. It does not apply to local school boards.
"We've been working at this for two, maybe three years," said bill sponsor Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden. "We have finally begun to pull everything together (and) build a compromise that I think gives us a way forward."
Utah's annual exam for students, known as SAGE, was once again the subject of legislative scrutiny, largely because of concerns over growing opt-out rates and questionable student effort on the exam in some cases.
Legislators almost unanimously passed HB201, prohibiting schools from using SAGE results in teacher evaluations.
The Legislature also passed HB200, which will allow high schools the option of not administering SAGE to 11th-graders since students in that grade already take the ACT, a college preparation exam.
But there could be more to come on SAGE.
"There's still lots of open-ended questions around where does assessment go in the future, and I think you'll see us in interim looking at assessment issues," Millner said.
In an effort to prevent firearm accidents among students, lawmakers set aside $75,000 in SB43 to develop a gun safety education program, likely through an instructional video. Parents will be able to opt their kids into the program, which will focus on what students should do if they encounter a firearm or learn of a threat to a school.
What didn't pass
Lawmakers turned down several education initiatives, some of which had support from education and community leaders. One such proposal, HB42, would have provided $10 million to expand optional extended-day kindergarten for at-risk students, but it didn't pass due to lack of funding.
"I am very disappointed that we are not going to fund a program that would have helped 7,200 additional kindergarten students," said HB42 sponsor Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara. "It actually breaks my heart because those children won't have the opportunity to take advantage of this program."
As an attempt to incentivize full participation from students on SAGE, one lawmaker proposed allowing teachers to use the test in calculating their students' grades. But HB164 stalled in a House committee.
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