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Education bills are taste of legislation to come

Measures piqued some interest and spurred discussion

Outside of budgeting issues, the 2001 Legislature is being described as neither good, bad nor ugly for public education.

Just unexpected.

Education bills that passed weren't quite as hard-hitting as those in years past. But they did pique interest and spur discussion that could foretell what's in store for future legislative sessions.

A sampling:

A bill to introduce income tax credits for private school tuition was abandoned by its sponsor, Rep. John Swallow, R-Sandy, to allow more time for discussion. It is certain to reappear next session.

"I feel during the next year we need to educate the public on what (the tax credits) mean," said Karen Derrick of the Utah School Boards Association, which lobbied against the bill.

The bill was controversial. On one hand, parents and Catholic school officials lobbied for the $1,500 credit, which they believed would allow more low-income students to choose between public and private education. On the other side were public school officials and the PTA, who feared the measure would only help the rich and rob school coffers.

A Deseret News poll showed the public split over the issue.

The Legislature also placed finishing touches on school reporting requirements under the state's school accountability plan. It gave another nearly $4 million to put the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students in place.

But accountability was overshadowed by unflattering state audits on how districts report spending on class-size reduction and textbooks.

"This will focus attention (on accountability) in different ways" and have long-term effects, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing said.

Sex education popped up frequently and without warning, but no bills sought to change curriculum.

A discussion on whether to rename and renew the State Textbook Commission was dominated by talk about sex education. It was amended to let districts pick their own materials for human sexuality courses.

Another bill allows school districts to tailor sex education lessons to avoid mention of contraceptives and lets teachers keep answering spontaneous student questions if they stay within state law. The law prohibits discussion of the intricacies of sexual intercourse or advocating the use of contraceptives or homosexuality.

Also, a flip-flopping Legislature eventually voted to bar the State Office of Education from seeking a long-standing $240,000 in federal grants for HIV/AIDS prevention, fearing a federal curriculum legislators considered too racy would be used. The money was replaced with state funds, but other branches of health-related grants are no longer available.

"This one really frustrates me," said Kim Burningham, chairman of the Utah Board of Education. "It seems like such an unimportant issue" considering other education needs.

The state also received the green light to sponsor eight more charter schools in two years, bringing the potential total to 16. School districts may sponsor as many as they want.

Charter schools are specialized public schools that receive full state per-student funding but only partial local funding. Lawmakers, however, gave $420,000 to make up for local funding shortfalls.

Though controversial gun bills were scarce this year, one landed on schools' turf.

The bill sought to require gun safety classes in schools. But it lost most of its ammunition along the way and petered out in Senate Rules.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com