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Public education leaders to keep eye on funding

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The money game is always the one to watch on the Hill.

The 2002 Legislature beginning Jan. 21 will be the same for public education in that regard — but different, too.

On one hand, money will be more important than ever, considering the $180 million to $200 million budgetary shortfall faced by the state.

On the other, there aren't a lot of greenbacks to quibble over.

Education leaders, the governor and legislators all say they want a continued commitment to public schools. But the real question is exactly how that will happen.

"I'm most worried about losing the progress we've made" in per-student and program funding, Utah Education Association President Phyllis Sorensen said.

"We're just keeping our fingers crossed that there will be money to do what we need to do for our kids," Utah PTA President Susan Dayton said.

The State Office of Education, like other agencies, already has offered places to cut back: $10 million in building aid, $1.8 million in staffing and other office-related cuts, plus other items totaling more than $46 million, Associate State Superintendent Patrick Ogden said.

But now, Ogden says the Legislative Executive Appropriations Committee has marked education for an additional $20 million in cuts in the current budget year.

"That's like asking districts to give back the $24 million in textbook funding the Legislature gave them last spring," Ogden said. "We'd have to go out to the districts and . . . say to them, you now have to reduce your budgets. It's not a pleasant thought."

Then again, nothing's firm until the gavel falls in March. Legislative analysts also predict about $80 million more, at least, after all the cuts are made in the current budget year, to play with for the coming budget year.

Gov. Mike Leavitt also wants to increase the state's per-pupil funding formula by 1.35 percent — slim, compared with 2001's 5.5 percent hike, but an increase nonetheless.

Public education has more challenges in sight.

By 2010, the State Office of Education is expecting 100,000 schoolchildren on top of the some 478,000 it has now. Utah spends about $4,200 per student each year, according to education office numbers.

The Utah Education Association estimates the new students will require 172 new schools and more than 4,000 new teachers.

But some folks believe they've found a better way to handle the onslaught: Give families incentives to choose private schools via income tax credits.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, is drafting a bill he says would offer Utah parents a $2,100 tax credit for private school tuition. The rest of the per-student funding would remain in the public school system, mostly in the district where the child lives.

Tuition tax credit advocates say the concept, at work in some form in eight states, will open school choice to low-income families and alleviate overcrowding.

"With this new group of kids coming at us right now, you want to talk about something scary? Then let's not do anything . . . and fund them under the current system," Buttars said.

Tax credit opponents, which include public education groups and the Utah PTA, say they would take money from an underfunded school system — Utah spends the least per student in the country — and won't accomplish supporters' claims.

"I think (the credits) are popular with a certain group, but it's something that is absolutely unacceptable, whether times are good or bad," Sorensen said.

Education camps also will watch a few other issues, including whether the state will give school districts further control over funding through so-called block grants. The Utah PTA also hopes to keep legal requirements for parent and teacher meetings over student education and occupation plans.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com