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Utah senators give early support for school tech grant program

A classroom technology grant program is one step closer to making it across the finish line at the Utah Legislature.
A classroom technology grant program is one step closer to making it across the finish line at the Utah Legislature.
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SALT LAKE CITY — A classroom technology grant proposal is one step closer to making it across the finish line at the Utah Legislature.

Members of the Senate Education Committee unanimously supported HB277, applauding the level of flexibility it gives schools in addressing local technology needs. Schools that qualify for state assistance could use money from the bill for technology infrastructure, technical support, devices, software, professional development for teachers and other projects.

"This really is tailored. It really is locally driven. The (schools) decide where they are and what they need," said bill sponsor Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman.

The bill is the product of a task force commissioned last year to evaluate technology needs in classrooms throughout the state and develop a comprehensive implementation plan. That plan is intended to ensure that student achievement is the focus of any technology implementation, according to Dave Thomas, first vice chairman of the Utah State Board of Education.

"The whole idea behind the master plan was to transform teaching in the classroom, not as a replacement for teachers, but as a tool for teachers, and for the teachers to be the architects," Thomas said.

While many lawmakers agree on the policy, how much funding the program will get this year is still uncertain. Prior to the legislative session, the Utah State Board of Education requested $100 million to allow for the plan's full implementation statewide.

Last month, members of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee recommended the program receive $10 million in ongoing money and $15 million in one-time funding.

Some educators are asking legislators to first fund a sizeable increase to the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, which gives schools flexible spending money on a per-student basis.

The Utah Education Association, for example, is asking for a 5 percent increase, about $130 million. Gov. Gary Herbert requested an equal amount in his budget proposal. The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, however, recommended a 2.5 percent WPU increase, with another 1.5 percent equivalent for some low-income schools.

"While it's is a tremendous benefit to our students," Utah School Boards Association President Nancy Kennedy said of the technology program, "we really need the other funding first."

Thomas said the technology program could be scaled according to the funding it receives and how ready schools are to upgrade their technology resources. But the statewide program will need more than $25 million to be sustainable in future years, he said.

"Those who are most ready to go, they're going to be ready and they're going to get those first grants," Thomas said. "As others get ready, then we'll be able to fund those. But it's going to take some time to do that."

HB277 passed the House last week in a 44-28 vote and now moves to the full Senate, where it will be voted on twice before being sent to the governor for his signature.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen