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$$ is thorn in schools plan

But most at meet praise Leavitt reform proposal

PROVO — Unless Utah comes into a lot of unexpected money over the next few months, the governor's proposal for holding the state's children to new standards won't be fully in place when school starts next fall.

The plan calls for $203 million in new funding for public education, an increase of 10 percent. Even parents who attended Gov. Mike Leavitt's summit Monday on the proposal knew that kind of hike would be difficult for the cash-strapped state.

"What they're proposing is huge," said Ellen Aste, a parent in the South Sanpete School District. "They want $200 million, and every year the Legislature cuts us back more. It almost seems ridiculous from the get-go."

Legislators attending the summit confirmed that money is a major hurdle for the school-reform plan, which is called Performance Plus. Still, the plan won't be dead on arrival when the Legislature meets early next year because it follows many of the broad strokes state senators outlined in the 2003 legislative session.

"It can't be $200 million," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem. "It's not DOA, but you can rest assured it will be modified."

State leaders rolled out Performance Plus during the first of five meetings around the state billed as the Governor's Summit on Competency-Measured Education. Monday's meeting, the first, included a dozen state legislators, parents, teachers, administrators, school district personnel and businesspeople.

Each group had questions about the plan, but most had praise for the idea of competency-based education, a main component of Leavitt's last State of the State address. Performance Plus would require students to meet certain standards before they could graduate from high school.

Most of the money would be earmarked for regular assessment tests and costly one-on-one tutoring. Elementary school children who lagged behind would be helped by tutors, before- or after-school programs or summer school. Junior high students who didn't demonstrate competency would be admitted to high school conditionally and placed in courses to bring them up to the standard. That could mean the loss of elective course choice in high school.

That attention for every student is music to educators' ears.

"Every student will be learning, if this really happens," said Debbie Swenson, a member of the Nebo District Board of Education.

Utah children beat the national median score on the total battery of Stanford Achievement Tests in 2002, and the state's teens outperformed their national peers on the 2002 ACT college entrance exam — but there are problems that need to be addressed, especially in light of the federal No Child Left Behind guidelines.

"Our students are not coming to us well-prepared," said Sam Rushforth, a dean at Utah Valley State College. "That has to change. It's an economic problem for the state either way. When higher education gets these students, we have so much remediation to do, it's a very costly problem on that end."

The governor's office and the State Office of Education would like to see the program's details finalized this winter and funded by the Legislature in March so it could be implemented in the fall of 2004. High school graduates in 2008, this year's eighth-graders, would be the first held to the new, tougher graduation standards. That seems unlikely after feedback legislators gave Monday to state educators, who understand why.

"We know it's a huge problem," said Steven Laing, state superintendent of public instruction. "Where do the resources come from? With the stars all aligned and resources from heaven, it could happen soon, but there may be a need to modify some of these goal dates."

One alternative suggested Monday was partially funding the Performance Plus for implementation as a pilot program in some school districts or schools. Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, proposed immediately implementing those parts of the program that could be done without new financing from the Legislature.

Legislators also expressed concern about selling the program to teachers, who haven't gotten raises from the Legislature for the past two years.

"We've gone two years without anything for teachers," said David Cox, R-Lehi.

State officials are realistic about the funding issues.

"Clearly, it's going to be a huge financial challenge," said Patti Harrington, assistant superintendent with the State Office of Education. "It may come in chunks, it may come in a year or two, but the minute you add assessments and standards to the dialogue, you start seeing improvement. I don't get discouraged about money."

Valentine, the Senate majority whip, said Monday's summit was an important step.

"There's a lot of work that's left to be done," he said. "People have to understand we're gathering information and we'll begin to refine this now."

Valentine said he agreed with the assessment Leavitt gave in his keynote address that kicked off the summit. "It's hard work," Leavitt said, "and it's worth it."


E-MAIL: twalch@desnews.com