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Vouchers sought to help teens pass exit test

Should the state give education vouchers to students needing help on the high school basic skills test?

The chairman of the Capitol Hill committee holding schools' purse strings thinks it's a great idea and one that likely will find its way into a bill in the 2006 Legislature.

"I would have said remediation money was dead on arrival until today," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper and chairman of the Public Educations Appropriations Subcommittee.

The subcommittee met Thursday with the State Board of Education, talking issues ranging from holding schools accountable for student achievement to the board's funding wish list.

The board wants $6.1 million to help students pass the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test.

That's the exam that all students, beginning with this year's senior class, have to pass in reading, writing and math to earn a basic high school diploma. Those who try test sections three times can get an alternative diploma; anything less could bring a certificate of completion.

It's unknown exactly how different diplomas will play out in the real world.

Thousands of students — perhaps 26 percent or more of them, according to state data and a Deseret Morning News analysis — are failing the test, first offered to them as sophomores.

The state board last Legislature sought money in the last legislative session to help students them pass. None of it was funded. Stephenson has said schools ought to be able to teach basic skills with the more than $2 billion they already have to work with.

But what about a remediation voucher?

A voucher, some lawmakers say, would let parents shop around for the best bargain, be it at through public schools or a private institution. Oxford Learning Source, for instance, was allowed to make a presentation to legislators as part of the discussion.

Stephenson said the voucher could come as a reimbursement, after the student passes the UBSCT. The voucher also could be tied to a student's initial test performance and bring more money to the students who have the furthest to go to pass the exam.

Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, said the idea could become "a tremendously valuable asset" to parents seeking help for their children. Remedial help has not been offered at every school.

The state board was asking for the money to provide meaningful help to students after they fail the test once; high schools would set up plans for how to go about it. Schools would provide annual reports, according to the state education office's presentation to lawmakers, and monitor schools' plans for effectiveness.

State education leaders were not anticipating the voucher discussion, State Associate Superintendent Ray Timothy said. Neither he nor state board chairman Kim Burningham had formulated an immediate opinion on the idea.

"It was a totally new concept," Timothy said.

In the past, the State Board of Education has stood against vouchers and tuition tax credits, saying they drain dollars from an underfunded school system. But the board last Legislature did support Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships, a limited private school voucher program for students with disabilities.