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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
FILE — First-grade teacher Chris Strong reads to her students at South Jordan Elementary School on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.

Editor's note: "Informed Decisions 2016" is a project headed by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, in partnership with the Deseret News and KSL Broadcasting, to identify issues and policy to help drive public debate and discussion during this election year. This is the first in an ongoing series of articles.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah voters want more opportunities for early childhood education, higher pay and better support for teachers, and better awareness and affordability of higher education pathways.

Those and other issues emerged as themes of six focus group discussions convened by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, in partnership with the Deseret News and KSL Broadcasting.

The project aims to give voters snapshots of how education, state infrastructure and taxes matter in the context of the 2016 election, based on discussions with thought leaders, policymakers, business executives and community members. Initial results of the discussions were released to the Deseret News on Wednesday.

"It's really a series of election products to help voters make better choices in 2016," said Dianne Meppen, director of survey research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. "The focus groups really helped us identify important issues under these topics and potential policy options."

While the project doesn't represent all voters, the focus group discussions allowed participants to explain their concerns in detail, as well as the "why" behind what community members value in state policy, Meppen said. More detailed results on other topics will be released in election briefs later this summer.

Education was identified as a "preeminent" policy issue, with themes ranging from solutions for Utah's preschoolers to assistance for college students, according to Wednesday's results. And in a broad sense, community members hope the 2016 election will bring more unification to a seemingly "fractured" and continually changing vision for education.

"There just doesn't seem to be stability in education," Meppen said. "It's constantly moving — not constantly moving forward always in a good way, but moving in different directions."

Early childhood

Educators have pointed to early childhood education as a crucial contributor to students' long-term success and academic achievement. It's also seen as an opportunity to level the playing field between low-income or minority students and their higher-income majority counterparts.

In the Granite School District, for example, 69 percent of minority students and 71 percent of low-income students who attend preschool are prepared when they enter kindergarten, compared to a district average of 61 percent, according to district officials.

United Way of Salt Lake, Prosperity 2020, Education First and other community organizations joined members of the Utah State Board of Education this year in asking state lawmakers to prioritize early childhood education in the state budget.

The Utah Legislature subsequently passed a bill that devotes more than $11 million in state and federal funding to expanding public preschool offerings. The funding is targeted to help low-income families, where students may be at an early academic disadvantage.

But requests that sought to expand optional extended-day kindergarten were not funded, including a $10 million request from the State School Board and some lawmakers. That funding would have helped some 7,200 additional students enroll in full-day kindergarten programs.

Members of the discussion headed by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Hinckley Institute of Politics hope early childhood education will be addressed again in the Legislature, understanding the "integral" role that families play in educating children.

"Honestly, this was where the passion really was. It becomes very personal," Meppen said. "There is still a great concern and a desire for education to be at the forefront with decision-makers. The majority of the people in the group expressed the desire to have early learning opportunities."

Prioritizing educators

While state and education leaders are beginning to study issues contributing to an evolving teacher shortage, members of the focus group discussions "at all levels" were aware of the problem, according to Meppen.

Last week, the Deseret News reported that nearly half of all new teachers in Utah leave the classroom by their fifth year on the job. Nearly one-third of those leave after their first year, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

A recent survey of 31 school districts by the Utah School Boards Association found that 48 percent of districts reported starting the school year without a certified teacher in every classroom, and 90 percent reported that the pool of qualified applicants has been shrinking.

That coincides with data from Utah's colleges and universities, which are producing fewer education majors each year. At the same time, Utah's student population steadily grows by more than 10,000 children every year.

"That just gives you a feeling of what the districts are feeling out there in the field," said Allison Nicholson, a research associate with the Utah Education Policy Center at the U. "There are factors that can affect teacher shortage … but that's where we need more research and more data."

Members of the State School Board met with lawmakers Tuesday to begin studies on why teachers are becoming scarce and what the potential impacts are for students.

"We've not been experiencing teacher shortages in the same way that we're experiencing them today," said Ogden Republican Ann Millner, Senate chairwoman of the Education Interim Committee.

Members of the focus group expressed concern about a negative tone and lack of respect surrounding teachers, low teacher pay, insufficient teacher support and development, and increasingly burdensome working conditions as possible contributors to Utah's shortage of educators.

Those are themes that policymakers plan to discuss throughout the year.

"We do have to deal with the environment for teachers. We have to change the rhetoric in the Legislature. We can't be beating up on our teachers," said Hurricane Republican Brad Last, House chairman of the Education Interim Committee. "We need to recognize them as true professionals, both in what we say and the policy that we make."

College options

Needed support for students doesn't stop at high school graduation. Focus groups also called for better ways to inform families of the diverse opportunities for college students.

That includes career choices through technical trade certificates or traditional college degrees. Pathways that start with an associate degree, such as welding or computer science, can be lucrative options for students on a quicker timeline, Meppen said.

Some industries have begun entering high schools to give students a head start on technical pathways. Several schools are piloting the Utah Aerospace Pathways program with Boeing, Hill Air Force Base and other employers, giving students early training and paid experience in aerospace engineering.

"Sometimes we don't hear as much about those options, and yet they are options that students have," Meppen said.

It also includes financial aid opportunities through scholarships and grants. In 2013, for example, Utah college students left $45.5 million in Pell Grant funds unclaimed, according to NerdWallet. Tuition rates, however, have risen in the state by at least 3 percent every year for decades.

Institutions are responding in various ways to students' financial needs. Salt Lake Community College this year announced a new program to waive tuition and fees for resident students who take full academic workloads but have significant financial needs. The college will cover those costs when federal grants fall short, expecting to help between 400 and 500 students this year.

"There are a lot of scholarships and grants and other funding available that students and parents may not be aware of, and there's a real need for that information to be available," Meppen said.

Coming Friday: What voters need to know about infrastructure needs in Utah.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen