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Leavitt OKs reform bill; boards start scramble

Gov. Mike Leavitt has signed into law a controversial education reform bill that will have state and local school boards scrambling in the months to come.

Leavitt on Thursday said he signed off on SB154, and later would host a ceremonial bill signing. Spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour believed the ceremony could come in early April.

But not all are ready to celebrate the new law.

"It's got some strong points," State Board of Education chairman Kim Burningham said. "But it's got some real concerns."

SB154, sponsored by Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, espouses reforms suggested by business leaders in the governor's Employers Education Coalition.

The coalition has complained high school graduates seeking jobs at area businesses are unable to perform simple mathematical tasks or write effectively.

SB154 aims to turn schools back to basics through a competency-based education, partly to give meaning to the high school diploma. That basically means the state will have to set standards for what high school graduates should know in social studies, math, science and English, instead of how many of those classes they have to take.

The state school board likes the idea.

"There are a number of issues about which we have positive feelings. The philosophy on competency is a philosophy we've been espousing for almost a year, and it's a good idea," Burningham said.

In fact, the board has come up with a plan on how to implement a new competency-based education system, and for months has sought input on it. A board committee meets Monday to discuss possible changes to the proposal.

On the other hand, the bill contains new rules the school board doesn't like. They include loosened teacher licensing standards and having one, statewide nominating committee to pick state school board candidates. Currently, candidates are nominated by 15 local committees.

Also, the bill gives $1.8 million to implement the educational reforms — a paltry sum at best, board members say. Some even suggest they do only what they can with $1.8 million, and once the money's gone, stop the effort.

"How can we do all these things when we don't have the money to do all the things we need to get done?" board member Denis Morrill asked in this month's meeting.

The prospect of working until the money runs out could be discussed again when the board meets April 4.

"I think now we're discussing all possibilities . . . and considering what our approach should be," Burningham said. "I'm sure by the time our next board meeting comes, we'll take a more firm position."

The law requires the board report on its progress to implement educational reforms in the next few months.