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Fine-tuning of school reforms sought

Matheson fears plans could hurt Utah programs

WASHINGTON — President Bush's proposed education reforms need fine tuning to prevent damaging some key Utah school programs, Rep. Jim Matheson told Congress Wednesday.

He said currently proposed reforms might continue to underfund special education programs, force reworking Utah's successful school testing programs and reduce key training for teachers.

Matheson, D-Utah, expressed those views in testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on a day reserved for House members to express views on Bush's proposed reforms.

"Utah educators are excited about the priority President Bush is placing on education. They agree with increased funding, flexibility and accountability. However, they have a few concerns about how these changes may affect their schools," he said.

For example, he said not enough is being done to increase special education funding through Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) money.

"The cost of educating special needs students is draining resources from all students as the federal government fails to keep its promise to fund IDEA," Matheson said.

He noted that especially hurts Utah, which new Census data shows "has the highest number of students per teacher in the nation."

Also, Utah has the lowest spending per pupil in the nation. "These statistics are the result of tremendous family growth and immigration, which local schools are struggling to keep up with," Matheson said.

He added, "The State Office of Education estimates that in the next 10 years, Utah will add over 100,000 students. This will require the construction of over 124 new schools, a 15 percent increase."

Matheson said he also worries that some federal funding now awarded on a competitive basis might be consolidated into programs where funding is based instead on per-pupil spending, which is low in Utah because of its large family sizes.

An example, he said, are the 21st Century Learning Center grants, which some Utah schools won through competition to establish after-school programs including homework clubs.

"Changing the allocation and administration of these competitive funds may remove the only designated source of money for effective after-school programs in Utah," he said.

He said another proposal to combine the Eisenhower Professional Development Program with class size-reduction efforts "may free money for a moderate decrease in class size, but it could also remove one of the only sources of professional development available."

Matheson also said that proposals for national testing of schools, and tying federal funding to results, worries some educators in Utah.

"Local officials worry about federal mandates requiring this testing to be in place too quickly. They are concerned about federal mandates that will force them to change the quality tests they have developed" already, he said.

"High turnover and influxes of refugee and immigrant students over the course of the year creates a problem for the process of tying federal dollars to school outcomes on tests," he said.

He added that teachers urge "the use of tests to measure student progress over time, examining where a student begins the school year and comparing it to where that student finished."

Bush's education reforms are designed to close achievement gaps by giving states and schools greater flexibility in the use of federal school money in exchange for greater accountability for results. It also allows school choice for children in failing schools to transfer to other schools.


E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com