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Bill proposes reimbursing schools when students graduate early

FILE — House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, addresses legislators in the House of Representatives on the first day of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.
FILE — House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, addresses legislators in the House of Representatives on the first day of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah legislators are considering "reimbursing" schools for students who graduate early through a program known as competency-based education.

Under a competency-based education model, a student who demonstrates mastery of a subject can advance rather than waiting to finish out the academic year or grade level.

The concept was first introduced in Utah in 2013, when the Legislature passed a bill allowing school districts and charter schools to establish competency-based education programs and asked the State School Board to recommend a funding formula for such a program.

However, due to the way they're funded, schools stand to lose money for each student who graduates early, according to associate general counsel Victoria Ashby.

The goal of the bill is to remove that barrier to competency-based learning, said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

"It's the beginning of enabling us to create a formula that would work for a school or school district that wanted to go down a mastery-based learning model," Millner said.

So far, competency-based education hasn't been taken up by many schools.

Rich Morley, executive director of American Leadership Academy in Spanish Fork, said the program has worked well in the lower grades, where students are able to move forward at their own pace.

However, Morley said the charter school has struggled to win over students in secondary grades.

“Parents and children feel like these kids will be at a disadvantage for scholarships," he said.

Based on how well the program has worked in elementary school, Morley said he'd like to encourage competency-based education at the higher grade levels because it would motivate students who see senior year as a time to slack off.

"Senior year almost becomes a more relaxed year where students do the bare minimum to graduate," Morley said. "Instead of building momentum going into college, they're almost declining."

Some legislators questioned whether the program would advance students faster than they mature and incentivize them to rush through courses rather than explore different subjects.

"As a teacher of seniors, I used to kind of discourage early graduation," said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights. "I would always tell my students, 'This is your last opportunity for a free education. Take a math class, take a foreign language class.'"

But Millner said the concept allows schools and parents to have a choice in the matter. The bill, she said, simply removes a disincentive.

"This ought to be about local decision-making and local control. … If a school wants to do this, a district wants to do this, we shouldn’t create policy barriers," she said.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, called it an "elegant" way to shift the focus from seat time to subject mastery.

"That enables (local education agencies) to use those resources for assisting other students who aren't moving as quickly forward," Stephenson said.

The committee voted Wednesday to move a draft version of the bill to the full Legislature. The 2017 general session begins in January.

Another 10,089 students are projected to enter Utah schools next year, bringing the public school enrollment total to nearly 655,000 students.

It will cost the state between $105 million and $115 million to maintain Utah's per-pupil spending, which is lowest in the nation, according to legislative fiscal analysts.