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Changes ahead for parents, students and teachers

SALT LAKE CITY — From testing to technology, Utah's classrooms will see several changes next year as a result of Utah's 2016 legislative session, which adjourned last week. And there is much for parents and students to pay attention to.

  • For some families, it will bring more opportunities to enroll their children in preschool.
  • High school juniors in some schools will spend less time on end-of-level testing.
  • At several of Utah's colleges and universities, new facilities will give students a better place to learn and practice their craft in both science and the arts.

Public and higher education in Utah will get an overall funding increase of $445 million in the next fiscal year, bringing the state's total funding increase for education in the past five years up to $1.7 billion.

While Utah still remains among the lowest in the country for per-pupil spending, student performance has climbed higher than most states in some subjects. Lawmakers hope this year's budget will lead to further gains in student proficiency and prosperous economic outcomes.

Utah's K-12 schools are expected to bring in an additional 9,700 students next year, pushing total enrollment to more than 643,000 students. Lawmakers appropriated $90 million to handle the growth, as well as a 3 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit, which distributes per-pupil funding to each school.

It was not as much as educators sought, but it will make an impact in helping schools hire teachers, raise educator compensation and meet other local needs, David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said.

"We're pleased. We got full funding of growth and a healthy increase in the weighted pupil unit. We're happy with that," Crandall said. "It's really at the discretion of the districts to see what actually happens and what they do with that funding."

Lawmakers passed SB38 in an effort to bring greater funding equity between school districts and charter schools. The bill provides $20 million for charters through an appropriation that was traditionally reserved for low-income districts.

The bill also creates a separate tax levy for charters so that districts no longer have to collect tax revenue on behalf of the alternative schools. The move is revenue-neutral for school districts and won't raise rates for taxpayers.

And because of the bill, taxpayers will now be able to see how much of their property tax dollars are going to charter schools as well as their local school district.

"SB38 provides transparency, it provides equity, it makes sure every student receives equitable funding," said Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. "This is a real big win for all of Utah public education and all Utah taxpayers."

Classroom instruction

A classroom technology grant program will get $15 million this year, short of the $100 million requested. But it's enough to begin implementing technology improvements in several schools.

It's a program that will likely look different in each school. The funding can be used to purchase devices, software, IT infrastructure and support, as well as teacher training. State education leaders will administer the grants, which will be awarded to schools that demonstrate a plan leading to gains in student achievement.

Education leaders hope more funding will be available over time for a broader implementation.

"At least we got something to get that started," Crandall said. "That's something that students, parents and schools can look forward to."

Low-income families will have greater access to preschool offerings for their children thanks to a bill that passed last week. SB101 appropriates almost $12 million to the Utah Department of Workforce Services and the Utah State Office of Education to help connect families with a program that best meets their needs.

The funding will be awarded to families in the form of a grant, allowing them to sign up for private preschool, public preschool, home-based online programs and others. Lawmakers and educators hope it will give young students that show early signs of academic struggle a head start in preparing for kindergarten.

"What this bill does is give parents of these most at-risk students lots of options and choices for being able to help their students come to school ready to learn," said Ogden Republican Sen. Ann Millner, who sponsored the bill. "The goal of this is student achievement and student success, and we've all been working very hard to try to facilitate that."

Since the bill is funded mostly by federal dollars, families must be at or below 200 percent of the poverty level to qualify for the assistance. That means a family of four with an annual income of $48,500 or less could participate.

Other legislative efforts for early childhood education weren't as successful. Despite momentum from education and community leaders, two bills that would have expanded optional extended-day kindergarten for families fell short of the finish line.

HB42 would have given $10 million to schools to offer full-day kindergarten to students at risk of falling behind in school. The concept was widely supported by lawmakers, but it was ultimately not included in the budget.

"I am very disappointed that we're not going to fund a program that would have helped 7,200 additional kindergarten students," said bill sponsor Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara. "It actually breaks my heart because those children won't have the opportunity to take advantage of this program."

Lawmakers also declined on HB41, which would have allowed schools to charge a fee to parents who want to enroll their child in extended-day kindergarten. The bill failed due to concerns that the process wouldn't be financially viable in some districts.

Testing and accountability

Lawmakers this year grappled with several concerns about SAGE, Utah's annual standardized test. Chief among them are a growing student opt-out rate, as well as questionable student effort on the test.

Some educators say students don't feel inclined to do their best on SAGE because it doesn't affect their grade. This is especially true for students in older grades. And when the highest- or lowest-performing students opt out of the test, it can impact classroom-level scores.

"We do see an impact in high school. There's no built-in incentive, and that can alter the validity of the information that we're getting from the test," Crandall said.

So lawmakers decided this year to pass HB201, which prohibits schools from using SAGE to evaluate teachers. Schools and teachers will likely use other student learning objectives, which may be measured on other tests, to formally evaluate instructors.

SAGE is administered to students in third through 11th grades. But since 11th-graders statewide also take the ACT in preparation for college, lawmakers voted to allow high schools the option of not administering SAGE to juniors starting in the 2016-17 school year.

That measure also comes in light of new federal education policy, which requires that end-of-level assessments be given only once during high school.

Despite the controversy surrounding SAGE, which finds more than half of Utah students below proficiency benchmarks, Crandall said he hopes lawmakers will continue to see the benefits of the test. Especially in elementary grades, he said, SAGE gives teachers specific direction as well as a glimpse of overall student performance.

"If we're putting $4 billion into public education, we need some way of measuring how well that money's being used and how effective we're being with those tax dollars," he said. "I think SAGE is a good way of doing that, a good measure."

Utah's school grade system, which the Legislature established in 2011, will change after the 2016 general session.

It likely won't mean drastic changes in grade distributions later this year. But education leaders hope it will facilitate manageable goals for schools while automatically adjusting the grading scale rigor as proficiency improves.

It's progress toward a more consistent assessment and accountability system for the state. But the work of further refinement is far from over.

"There's still lots of open-ended questions around where does assessment go in the future, and I think you'll see us in interim looking at assessment issues," Millner said. "I think you're going to see us looking at teacher shortage issues, another important area that we know we're facing. We really have to understand that better."

Higher education

Prospective college students will once again be able to apply for the Regents' Scholarship, which is awarded to students who meet certain coursework requirements in high school.

Each year's scholarship amount depends on funding from the Legislature, but it was fully funded this year at $8.8 million in anticipation of application growth. Last year, the maximum scholarship amount for students was $1,250 per semester. This year's award amounts will likely be announced this spring.

Students will see new buildings go up on campus thanks to more than $100 million in state assistance this year. That money will help fund a new career and technical education building at Salt Lake Community College, a new biology building at Utah State University, a science building at Snow College, a new business building at Southern Utah University, and a new performing arts facility at Utah Valley University.

Another tuition increase is on the horizon for this fall, though the size of that increase is still unclear. Lawmakers provided $23.8 million for a compensation increase for college instructors, but that only covers 75 percent of the overall pay raise. As in previous years, the other 25 percent will be made up in tuition.

Tuition increases are also driven by increasing costs to institutions for infrastructure, technology and other needs. But institution leaders say they're sensitive to how that cost impacts students.

"I can't promise you that the costs of higher education are not going to go up," USU President Stan Albrecht told lawmakers during the Legislature. "But what I will promise you is that we will do everything we can to maximize opportunities for students and minimize the impacts on them and their families."


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