SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would award schools a letter grade based on student performance passed the Senate on Monday and now moves to the House.

Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, SB59 has been in the works since before the session began. After shopping the bill around and making a few amendments, Niederhauser said it's at a place where educators and lawmakers "feel really good about the process."

Niederhauser said the bill would provide for greater transparency among the public, since they'll know how well or how poorly their local schools are doing. Schools won't receive grades immediately, but the State Office of Education will create a model that will go into effect for the 2011-12 school year.

Based in part on a Florida system, SB59 would assign an A, B, C, D, or F to every school in Utah. The school grades would be based on how many students in a school are proficient on the standardized tests they take annually, how much they improve from year to year and, for high schools, how many students graduate.

Opponents said the bill is too simplistic and doesn't factor in the various challenges schools in the state face, particularly schools with high populations of low-income students.

"I know these teachers try very hard to do the best they can with the money and the services available to them," said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley. "This is unfair for those schools."

Others have said the bill comes at a bad time, since curriculum in the state is being overhauled, while other lawmakers said the bill won't be effective until more money is put toward addressing failing schools.

"Until we're actually willing to fund remediation," said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, "I think this is unwise."

Proponents argue that the grades will be entirely beneficial, since communities will have a better idea of how their local schools are fairing. Parents and neighborhoods will rally around poorly performing schools to improve them.

"This is a complete life preserver for the poorer schools in a district," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. "The reality currently is that the best teachers, they go to where it's easiest to teach."

Urquhart said poor schools oftent have the worst teachers in a district, but Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said that's not true for Utah.

"That is what is happening in the nation, not in Utah," she said.

Niederhauser's bill passed 17-10 and now goes to the House.

e-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com