SALT LAKE CITY — Professional development for teachers could return with renewed focus and support during next year's legislative session.

In an Education Interim Committee meeting Wednesday, lawmakers voted to begin drafting a bill for next year that would give money to qualifying schools to provide additional coaching and support for instructors.

Since the Legislature cut funding set aside for professional development programs in 2009 to increase the weighted pupil unit, Utah's formula for equalized school funding, districts have instead used those flexible dollars to sustain such programs.

In some places, professional development programs have been downsized as state funds were directed elsewhere.

But professional support remains key to hiring and retaining quality instructors, according to Syd Dickson, deputy superintendent of the Utah State Office of Education.

"It's often assumed that people leave the (teaching) profession because it's just not what they thought it would be. That's true in some cases. Some people get in and say, 'Wow, I just can't make a living teaching without taking on two or three other jobs.' That's often true," Dickson said. "But the No. 1 reason (is) that they didn't have the support they needed to do their job."

Members of the committee considered several options in how best to fund teacher training. One option would be through a competitive grant, awarding funds to a select number of schools that best meet legislative intent in furthering professional development.

Another approach would be through an increase to the weighted pupil unit, known as the WPU, which would provide additional flexible money for districts to spend as they see fit.

But the committee unanimously upheld a motion to draft a bill to award the funds through a qualifying grant, where all schools that meet certain requirements would be given funding.

Using a qualifying grant would ensure better accountability and more uniform effectiveness, allowing education leaders to study and reproduce successful professional development programs, according to Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction.

"If we are to devote more resources to professional learning, and I certainly believe that is a very meaningful place to think about devoting more resources, how will we measure the outcomes?" Smith said. "Putting it into the WPU, frankly to me, it doesn't eliminate but it certainly confounds our ability to measure and monitor. … I think the way to do that is probably more easily accomplished with some below-the-line funding that has fairly flexible parameters built around it."

Other educators disagreed, noting that giving schools more local control through the WPU would allow them to meet their own professional learning needs most appropriately.

Bob Sonju, professional development director for the Washington County School District, assured lawmakers that extra flexible funds would be set aside for teacher training as needed.

"I would advocate for the WPU because it will be targeted for very specific things," Sonju said.

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said he hopes the funding will be used for its intended purpose, but either way, it's possible the money would ultimately be given to the teachers themselves.

"The reality of this professional development money is that it's going to end up in teachers' pockets," Last said. "I just think that's the reality of this."

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said state and education leaders should allow teachers some flexibility in the type of coaching they receive, and that training should be "subject-specific."

"I don't think any of these professional development outcomes are going to be successful unless the teachers can have a say in what they do," Moss said.

Dickson agreed that the training should be tailored to guide teachers in helping their students improve where it is most needed.

"We can no longer afford … the one-size-fits-nobody standard of thinking about how we bring one speaker in and call that good or assume that everybody needs to learn the same thing," she said. "Just like we expect individualized instruction for students, where possible, we must do the same" for teachers.

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