Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
FILE - In this March 4, 2015, file photo, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — From $5 million appropriated to further university researchers' study of an elephant protein's role in cancer resistance to a new K-12 program intended to boost student achievement, fresh initiatives to enhance knowledge and learning got a boost from state lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session.

As it came to a close Thursday, lawmakers approved funding to pay for enrollment growth in public schools and state colleges and universities, approved a new process to develop and fund buildings on state college campuses, and appropriated $17.2 million for a rebuild of the Utah State Board of Education's outdated and fragmented information technology infrastructure.

Another $17.2 million will expand an initiative that provides matching grants to schools to hire counselors, including psychologists, social workers or nurses. The funding can also be used to contract for community mental health services and appropriate ongoing funds to the Safe UT Crisis Line.

The Legislature also appropriated $2 million for an initiative to cover low-income students' tuition and fees not covered by financial aid. The original request was for $30 million.

But lawmakers appropriated $50 million each for university buildings at Utah Valley University, Weber State University and Dixie State University.

Lawmakers, educators and system leaders agree: Both public school and the state's colleges and universities fared well during the 2019 session.

"Education did very, very well," said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, addressing the Utah Senate after it had completed its business, said the state budget reflected the state's priorities and "how we in fact funded education — another $280 million in new ongoing money to public education, $236 million approximately to higher education, three new buildings. We're over $1.1 billion in the last four years in public ed."

It was unclear toward the end of the session whether state lawmakers would reach a budget agreement. They eventually did, but it temporarily stirred concern that schools and colleges would only receive maintenance budgets, which would complicate colleges setting tuition recommendations and public school boards' contract negotiations with employee associations.

"Overall, it turned out better than we thought it might at one point. We were able to get growth funded, 4 percent on the (weighted pupil unit) and attention was paid to our strategic board goals, early learning, effective educators and leaders, personalized teaching and safe and healthy schools and personalized learning," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler said it was "a very good year for higher education" both in terms of funding and legislation.

Lawmakers provided $27 million for performance outcomes, a 2.5 percent pay raise for higher education employees and upped the state contribution toward their health insurance coverage.

The Legislature also passed what Buhler described as "landmark pieces of legislation," SB102, which substantially alters how state-financed buildings on college campuses are developed and funded, and HB260, which created the Access Utah Promise Scholarship program. That program will cover costs of tuition and general student fees where federal financial aid falls short for low-income students who take full academic loads.

Lawmakers appropriated no new money for the Utah College Advising Corps, which helps high school students make successful transitions to higher education under the guidance of "near peer" advisers who work in high schools. The Utah System of Higher Education reallocated $1 million in its current budget to expand the number of schools served by advisers but wants to scale the program statewide.

"We would have like to see that funded this year but using money previously appropriated, we are expanding it to over 30 schools and we'll move forward with that and be back next year with even more success to show the Legislature why this is worthy of their investment in 2020," Buhler said.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said in the context of tax reform discussions and disagreement between the legislative houses on the state budget, "public education clearly prioritized."

Both UEA and the State School Board recommended that more money be applied to the value of the weighted pupil unit, with the teacher association asking for a "historic investment," calling for a 6.5 percent increase.

The increase was set at 4 percent, but additional funding for schools was appropriated through the Teacher and Student Success Act, which was largely funded with $65 million placed in an account last year under a compromise with the citizen initiative Our Schools Now.

The citizen group backed a ballot initiative to raise $700 million-plus for education through increases in income tax and sales taxes. The group agreed not to place the question before voters.

SB149, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, creates a mechanism to send millions of dollars directly to Utah schools to create and execute local plans intended to improve student achievement.

Funding will go to local school boards or charter boards for distribution to schools. Local boards must approve and monitor school-level plans.

Although UEA backed the citizen initiative, Matthews said they would have preferred that funding to go into the weighted pupil unit. "We didn't want another funding mechanism. We just need more money," she said.

4 comments on this story

Millner said constituents frequently tell lawmakers "give us some funds that really have local control, that can go directly to schools and allow the schools to determine based on the school's needs, how they want to use those funds to help improve student learning in their school. We know every school is different."

The program requires local control and local accountability and will create opportunities to learn what works to improve student achievement, she said.

"I'm very excited about this," Millner said.