Money, Technology To Be Top Education Issues This Legislative Session
by Molly Farmer
January 22, 2012
SALT LAKE CITY — Money and a hope for better collaboration this year are top of mind for legislators and educators alike as the 2012 legislative session convenes Monday.
From a package of bills that would revamp the state's assessment system to a proposal by state Democrats that would increase funding for public education by $500 million, lawmakers are mapping out their priorities.
"I know that the Appropriations Committee is going to do everything in its power to fund growth," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
With an estimated 12,500 new students expected to enter the school system this fall, lawmakers are hoping to funnel more dollars to account for the new students. Gov. Gary Herbert asked the Legislature to spend an additional $40 million more to account for the influx.
"The most important budget discussion will be funding growth in education," Osmond said.
Democrats, however, don't want to stop there. Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, has plans for legislation that would allocate an additional $500 million to the education budget.
"Funding doesn't automatically translate to a better education system, but it's part of it," he said.
McAdams' plan would freeze property tax rates, so as home values rise, tax revenue would as well. He'd freeze some personal income tax exemptions — particularly those related to dependents — and he'd also dedicate 30 percent of new sales tax revenue to public education.
McAdams said his plan would gradually increase revenue for education over the next decade, ultimately generating an additional $760 per pupil. He said the state needs to come up with a plan rather than starting over every year.
"Instead of waiting until each budget cycle is finalized," he said, "this would allow us to do long-term funding to meet our education needs."
Other lawmakers are working with the State Board of Education to make 2012 the session that embraced technology to usher in a new way for students to take assessments.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is sponsoring a $6 million bill that would provide computer adaptive tests for children. The money for the bill would be added to current dollars spent on pencil and paper Criterion Referenced Exams, which would be eliminated. The computer assessments are believed to more accurately show what concepts students learn, and what concepts they struggle on.
"That will be a complete change in our assessment accountability system," said Debra Roberts, chairwoman of the State Board.
In order for the new assessment system to be viable, schools would need to have a 1-to-3 ratio of computers per students, which leads to an even pricier piece of legislation. Osmond, a freshman senator who was elected to replace former GOP Sen. Chris Buttars who retired last year, is sponsoring a technology bill that would allocate $15 million in one-time money for the purchase of computers and other devices. Another $5 million would be allocated on an annual basis.
"Our ultimate goal, as we can scrap together the funding, is to get to a one-to-one (ratio)," Roberts said.
Roberts said she's hopeful that if Hughes' and Osmond's bills pass, the state could have a revamped testing system in place by the 2014-15 school year.
Utah Education Association leaders spent much of their time last year defending the teaching profession when the national spotlight was cast on public employees in Wisconsin, where lawmakers stripped away collective bargaining rights.
This year, UEA leaders are hopeful to spend less time in the hot seat. One proposal they're planning on fighting is a bill that would disallow teachers from automatically deducting their state union dues from their paychecks.
"It's their money," said Kory Holdaway, director of government relations for the UEA. "We have United Way, we have our mortgages, we have our insurance, why would we single out an education association?"
The association is also hoping new students get funded, in addition to money being allocated for professional development, so teachers can collaborate and learn best practices.
Roberts said this session is already shaping up to be collaborative, and she's hopeful it lasts.
"We have worked so hard to create partnerships with the Legislature. ... I thoroughly believe that the vast majority of legislators care deeply about public education," she said. "We kind of had a blip last year, I don't know what caused it or where it came from."
Other legislation to watch:
• Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would give the control and supervision of higher education to the governor, removing that responsibility from the State Board of Education. Its a concept that gained momentum last session, getting the approval of the Senate, but eventually failed.
• Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, wants to place a cap on classroom sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The former high school teacher has a five-year plan that would eventually only allow up to 18 students per kindergarten class, 20 per first-grade class, 22 per second-grade class and 24 per third-grade class.
• Osmond has taken a new direction on legislation he developed this fall that would have made it easier to fire bad teachers. After holding public, well-attended Q&A sessions with hundreds of teachers across the state, Osmond said school leadership is the real problem and something he hopes to address this session. "If there's a problem in the organization, you don't go against the employees," he said. "You fix the leadership." Osmond plans to unveil legislation that will require administrators to be reviewed annually.
• Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake, wants parents to be more engaged in their kids' education. She's sponsoring a resolution to that end.