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Statewide school technology bill passes first legislative hurdle

SALT LAKE CITY — Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson wants to put a technology device into the hands of hundreds of thousands of students in Utah.

The initiative comes with a $75 million price tag in its first year alone, but it earned the approval of almost every member of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

Based on an unsuccessful initiative sponsored by the late former House Speaker Becky Lockhart last year, and now in its 40th iteration, SB222 passed the committee in a 7-1 vote and will now be considered by the full Senate.

"I've never been more hopeful about the future of education in our state than I am now, especially if we are able to give teachers the tools they need to more effectively reach every student at their level, their pace and their learning style," said Stephenson, the bill's sponsor.

The bill would provide enough money to fund 25 percent of the cost for a school district or charter school to implement a one-to-one student technology program. Districts and charters would have to pay the remaining balance.

One-third of the state funds would be distributed on a per-student basis, while the other two-thirds would be based on the district's relative tax effort and the funding schools are able to generate per student on their own.

"We wanted to accommodate those that are least able to afford it to get a bigger share, and those who are more able to afford it will get a lesser share," Stephenson said. He said the bill would also accommodate districts that have already implemented their own technology initiatives, such as Wasatch and Park City school districts.

The bill allows the Utah State Board of Education to handle the curriculum and learning components of the program, while the Utah Education and Telehealth Network is charged with overseeing the deployment of devices. Both organizations will collaborate to develop a statewide "master plan," which includes infrastructure readiness, technical support, professional development for teachers and Internet security.

In order to qualify for the non-competitive grant, each district or charter school must submit their own implementation plan that agrees with the master plan and shows how the program will be funded, what type of devices will be used and how the program will be interwoven with curriculum.

Districts that choose to participate would be required to have the program fully implemented within three years, except for kindergarten through fourth-grade classes.

Stephenson said the bill provides lawmakers and education leaders with the "nimbleness" to ensure accountability and transparency as funds are allocated.

"What I really like about that is there is clear skin in the game," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan. "The majority of the financial burden is actually on the districts that are going to take this very seriously."

In addition to Internet filtering, Stephenson said each school must also ensure students' personal information and performance data are kept private and that devices are used for their intended purposes.

"What we've seen successfully in some places is no matter where a student takes the device, it always routes back through the school's filtering system with access to the Internet that way, so that whatever protection the students get inside the school, they could also get no matter where they take it," he said.

SB222 is one of the few bills that the State School Board has officially supported, and it is within the "top three or four" of the board's priorities for public education in the state, according to Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction.

Smith said the State School Board feels that it should have a greater level of responsibility for the initiative, which it shares with the Utah Education and Telehealth Network. But overall, state education leaders are pleased that the initiative is "not just a compromise," but "a bill that epitomizes the best that we can offer," Smith said.

Some, however, worry whether the $75 million required by the program could be better used in giving districts more freedom to implement a technology program on their own or to increase the value in the weighted pupil unit, a measurement of overall student funding.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said unless a new source of funding is identified, he would not be in favor of such a large appropriation.

"Unless we come up with a new, additional funding source, it's hard for me to justify in a school system that is so strapped for money right now this allocation," Dabakis said. "I'm not ready to allocate this $75 million when there are so many catch-up needs."

Stephenson said over time, the program would produce savings in textbook expenditures and remediation. As chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, he also said he was confident that the state would be able to provide schools with "significantly more" funding in the coming budget "with or without" funds from the Digital Teaching and Learning Program.

The Wasatch School District has already implemented its own one-to-one technology program. So far, teachers in the district say they have seen more students engaging in classroom exercises, including top research and presentations.

"I can tell you that I like what I see in terms of what the kids are doing," said district superintendent Terry Shoemaker. "It's about time the education caught up with what (students) already do very, very well."

Stephenson said the program will provide teachers with more information on each student's individual performance in specific areas of curriculum.

"We need to recognize that the Ferris Buellers of the world are just as precious as those who learn according to the normal learning style," he said. "We need to reach them where they are and bring them forward at their pace in their learning style. And this is what this (bill) is going to be able to enable teachers to do."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen