Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
In this Monday, Jan. 22, 2018 photo, Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore looks on from the Senate floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to legislation intended to help equalize school funding across the state.

SB145, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, advanced to a third reading in the Senate by a vote of 20-6.

The legislation would set aside $36 million from the state’s education fund to increase the minimum funding level for school districts statewide, adding funding each year.

It would provide $1.5 million for Necessarily Existent Small Schools and provide $25 million for student busing costs to be phased in over five years.

The bill also would expand the definition of at-risk students to include children experiencing homelessness, which means districts that serve them would qualify for at-risk funding enhancements.

The overarching goal is to close disparities in school funding.

While the state appropriates an equal sum to school districts and charter schools on a per-student basis through the weighted pupil unit, school districts also rely on local property taxes.

Revenues generated through local property tax revenues vary greatly across the state, Fillmore said. School districts with higher property values are able to generate more property tax revenue than those with lower property values.

Young families with children tend to migrate to areas with lower housing prices, which means growth in school-age populations but lower property tax yields to serve their educational needs.

"It simply has to do with realities of geography and demographics," Fillmore said.

For example, it's 3 miles between Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake in Davis County, but "education funding goes down by $2,100 per student,” he said.

While there is general agreement that the Legislature needs to address funding equity, there are competing ideas about how to accomplish that.

Even though Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, is the House sponsor of Fillmore's bill, he has his own proposal in the House, HB293.

HB293 would raise $36 million through a property tax freeze and potentially capture $125 million by 2022. The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee but has not yet undergone a hearing.

Ultimately, compromise between the approaches may be brokered via "the legislative process," Fillmore said.

While some senators offered enthusiastic support for Fillmore's bill, others such as Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, expressed concern that some districts will not benefit from SB145 if it means a reduction in the weight pupil unit.

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But others, including Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said it is the Utah Legislature's fault that there are "savage inequities" in student funding among districts.

At the time of statehood, early Utah leaders agreed "we'd have a socialized education system. That's what we agreed to," Stephenson said.

"There is one thing worse than socialism — inequitable socialism,” he said.

Hillyard rejected the argument, noting that local school districts could generate more local revenue by raising property taxes but many are loath to do it.

"Granted, we could do more," he said.