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Capitol Hill sparks likely will fly when education comes up

Two weeks into the Legislature, debates on education bills have been kept to a mild hum.

Dozens of bills ranging from busing to mandating young men to register for the draft to get college financial aid have breezed through committees.But the drama is expected to unfold in the coming weeks, as bills addressing charter schools, truancy and middle-school issues emerge from the wings.

So far, student transportation issues have been highlighted.

Traffic spilling onto side streets amid I-15 reconstruction has resulted in a four-fold increase in auto-pedestrian accidents in some areas. Many victims have been children, forcing school districts to buy buses, add routes and hire drivers to boost safety.

Granite Superintendent Stephen Ronnenkamp told lawmakers last week his district has spent $627,000 on new bus routes.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, would provide $350,000 to the State Office of Education to fund 33 additional routes.

The governor had recommended a $1 million appropriation.

A related bill, sponsored by Rep. Keele Johnson, R-Blanding, would enable school districts to raise local property taxes for transportation. The bill is intended to increase revenue for rural schools traveling long distances for activities, but urban districts could increase taxes as well.

Another perennial issue is time out of school for activities, particularly in rural schools. A bill sponsored by Sen. Alarik Myrin, R-Altamont, would require the state school superintendent to report every three years each district's time out of school and travel costs.

In higher education, lawmakers are wrestling with a proposal to increase graduate-student tuition more than 30 percent.

The hike, proposed by legislative number crunchers, would increase revenue $2 million at the University of Utah.

Graduate students, considered full time with 10 credit hours, now pay 10 percent more than undergraduates with the same classload.

Such increases are common: Graduate students at the University of Oregon pay 66 percent more than undergraduates.

The Board of Regents proposes a 2.7 percent tuition hike for all students, an increase that would generate $4 million.

Meanwhile, full-time college faculty could get a tuition break under HB341, sponsored by Rep. Perry Buckner, D-West Jordan. The bill would enable such faculty to enroll in graduate classes for free, if space is available. Two other measures address student financial aid.

Men age 18-26 who apply for college financial aid would have to register for the selective service under HB21, sponsored by Rep. Bryan Holladay, R-West Jordan. The bill is aimed at keeping Utah in step with federal requirements.

A measure sponsored by Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Orem, would expand a state financial aid supplement to include Brigham Young University students. McAllister is a retired BYU professor.

SB105 would increase the program's appropriation by $300,000. The program now serves students at state colleges, applied technology centers and Westminster College.

Perhaps debate will heat up once education reform and other bills come to the table.

Parents could be fined up to $250 for habitually truant children, under HB320, sponsored by Rep. Duane Bourdeaux,D-Salt Lake.

The measure also would require schools quickly respond to unexcused absences, notifying parents of attendance laws after four offenses within four weeks or 10 in a semester. Five days later, non-compliant parents could be fined up to $100 on first offense, up to $150 on the second and up to $250 thereafter.

Fines may be waived for perfect attendance the following month or for completing agency referrals.

The bill also would establish penalities for truants, including vehicle impoundment, driver's license suspension and fines up to $25. Schools and courts are to develop ways to identify students with legitimate excuses for absences, such as home-schooled, dual-enrollment, or year-round students.

In a related bill, Rep. Jeff Alexander, R-Orem, seeks $500,000 to fund truancy support centers. Last year, he secured $100,000 for centers in Utah and Salt Lake counties.

Charter schools, studied by a legislative task force, will be part of legislation sponsored by Rep. Brian Allen, R-Cottonwood Heights.

The educational reform provides for more parental involvement and autonomy from state control. The public schools emphasize a variety of curricula, except religion.

A competing bill providing for fewer restrictions on charter schools is expected to surface as well.

Charter schools are part of Gov. Mike Leavitt's new education initiative, Schools for the 21st Century.

The program would replace the governor's Centennial Schools program and emphasize parent involvement and achievement goals. Schools could get up to $125,000, including teacher bonuses, over three years if goals are met. Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, has proposed spending $13.6 million to cut class sizes in middle schools. A related bill would establish a task force to study middle-school issues.