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From testing to new buildings, big education decisions coming this week

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature has its eye on providing $440 million in new money for public and higher education, according to an executive appropriations proposal advanced last week.

That's about $18 million beyond the amount Gov. Gary Herbert requested in his budget proposal late last year.

But final appropriations and many other education issues still await approval by the full Legislature as lawmakers prepare to adjourn Thursday. School funding equity, student testing, early childhood education and a new method for electing state education leaders are just a few of the items on lawmakers' lengthy to-do list.

"As everybody knows, education is my top budget priority. We've tried to give the resources as we're able to education to make sure that we give them the tools … to educate a growing population," Herbert said. "I'm just so pleased that we're addressing the challenge and raising the bar."

Education budgeting

Last week's budget from legislative leaders includes $90.7 million for school enrollment growth, which is expected to bring about 9,700 additional students into Utah's education system this fall.

Legislative leaders hope to set aside more than $80 million, about a 3 percent increase, in flexible spending money through the weighted pupil unit. That money would be distributed to schools on a per-pupil basis and can be used for teacher pay, targeted education programs and other local needs.

But some lawmakers are still calling for a greater influx of cash to the weighted pupil unit to give schools more discretion in how the money is spent.

"We can fund education at the levels our students need if we are willing to occasionally make the unpopular decision to stop funding projects that have little to no impact on our state's bottom line," Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said in a prepared statement Friday. "If you want good schools, you have to pay for them. If you want a good economy, you have to invest in the people that make it great. We have the money, but not the will."

In addition to a statewide increase in flexible spending money, lawmakers have focused on improving funding equity between school districts and charter schools. The Legislature is expected to pass a measure that would create a new tax levy specifically for charters.

Districts have historically given 25 percent of their property tax revenues to charters, which don't have taxing authority. But SB38 would separate tax revenues for charters from those of district schools, which lawmakers hope will reduce the tension between the two school systems. The measure would not reduce revenues for district schools or raise rates for taxpayers.

The bill would also give charters about $20 million to make up for other funding inequities between them and district schools.

"I think we've got something that both sides can say, 'This is a great improvement,'" said Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who is sponsoring an identical bill in the House. "This has been a product of much compromise, negotiation, and really in the end, a great resolution that has made both of these public school groups that we have happy."

SB38 is expected to pass the House this week.

But the emerging budget does not include money for several other requests from legislators and education leaders, including $10 million to expand optional extended-day kindergarten and $30 million for professional development for teachers.

The budget funds only a fraction of what was originally requested for a classroom technology grant program. Education leaders asked for $100 million to implement the program statewide, but the budget provides just $15 million. Education leaders say they'll have to scale the program down initially and grow it over time.

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

HB277, which passed the House in a 44-28 vote, would allow schools to apply for grants to meet technology needs, such as devices, software and training for teachers. The bill still needs a vote in the Senate.

Utah's colleges and universities could also see an increase in funding, with $23.8 million to contribute to a 2 percent salary increase and a 1 percent insurance premium increase for instructors. Lawmakers are looking to provide $5 million as incentive funding for institutions that meet student-centered goals, as well as $5 million toward advancing academic programs that meet economic demand.

"For me, it's always been a focus on the economy. You cannot have long-term sustained economic growth if you don't have an educated population," Herbert said of the budget plan. "We ought to thank the Legislature for recognizing the need."

A request from the Utah State Board of Regents for $9.2 million to improve student access and affordability was not included.

Several new campus buildings would receive funding under the draft budget. The largest appropriation — $42.5 million — would go toward a new career and technical education building at Salt Lake Community College. Utah State University would get $28 million for a new biology building, Snow College would get $4.7 million for a science building, and $8 million would go toward a new business building at Southern Utah University.

Utah Valley University, which has raised $20 million in private donations for a new arts performance building, would be given $22 million in state funds, about $8 million short of what's needed to fully fund the project.

Testing and accountability

Utah's annual school exam, known as SAGE, has been the source of lengthy debate and several legislative efforts this year. Much of that debate stemmed from concerns that some students aren't giving the test their full effort, negatively impacting performance data.

HB164 sought to address the problem by allowing teachers to use the SAGE exam in calculating a student's grade. Powell, the bill's sponsor, also presented a substitute bill that would do away with SAGE altogether, citing concerns from parent and teacher constituents. Both the bill and its proposed substitutes failed to pass out of committee.

HB201 takes a different approach by removing SAGE as a component of teacher evaluations. Bill sponsor Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said teachers have expressed frustration that they are held responsible for factors that influence testing outcomes that are out of their control, such as truancy and language barriers.

That bill passed the House last week in a 60-4 vote, with Senate approval possible next week.

Poulson is sponsoring another bill, HB200, which would allow schools to opt out of administering SAGE to high school juniors. She said new provisions in federal education law require that a standardized test be administered only once for high schoolers, and Utah's juniors all take the ACT college preparation exam anyway.

"Up until now, we've had the heavy hand of the federal government, and they've loosened up their restrictions," Poulson said. "This is just a choice for the districts, and they can assess the needs in their particular district."

HB200 passed the House in a strong 70-2 vote and awaits final approval in the Senate.

Lawmakers last week advanced an initiative to modify Utah's school grading system, which is based partly on SAGE scores. SB149 would implement a permanent grading metric that will automatically adjust as student proficiency improves over time. Educators hope it will allow for more consistency in the distribution of school grades while encouraging academic growth.

The bill awaits final approval on the House floor, as well as concurrence from the Senate on recent changes.

Early childhood education

The emerging budget also includes $11.7 million to expand public preschool offerings for low-income students and others at risk of academic struggle. SB101 is expected to open up preschool for another 3,000 to 4,000 students across the state. That bill passed the Senate in a 19-4 vote last month and awaits House approval.

But funding for optional extended-day kindergarten, the subject of extensive legislative and community focus, was absent in the state budget proposal. HB42, which passed the House and has received preliminary approval in the Senate, would have provided $10 million to expand full-day kindergarten offerings in 285 schools. But the bill has been held on the Senate floor, just short of final approval.

Lawmakers in the Senate also turned down HB41, which would have allowed schools to charge a fee to parents who choose to enroll their children in extended-day kindergarten programs.

Senators, however, have passed a bill that would lower the age requirement for some children to start kindergarten. SB163 would allow 1 percent of the kindergarten population of a school district or charter school to include younger students, but those students must pass a readiness assessment before starting.

"The purpose of this bill is to make sure that we're serving the needs of students and their readiness, and not an arbitrary born-on date," said bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Stephenson's bill passed the Senate in a 21-6 vote last week and now requires a vote in the House.

Leadership elections

Lawmakers still have yet to fully agree on a new method for electing members of the Utah State Board of Education. But they're getting closer.

In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the previous process for electing board members was unconstitutional because it infringed on candidates' free speech rights. The judge also said it gave unrestricted authority to a nominating committee charged with screening candidates.

On Thursday, members of the House Education Committee amended and passed SB78, which would serve as a "stopgap" for the 2016 general election cycle, according to bill sponsor Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden. She said the bill makes adjustments to the current process to bring it in line with the judge's ruling. The bill repeals itself after the 2016 election.

But the bill as it currently stands would prohibit the committee from considering a candidate's experience in education, business management and other areas, as well as their "political or educational philosophies."

Millner's bill previously passed the Senate in a 24-0 vote, but it still requires a vote in the House, as well as Senate approval of recent amendments.

Legislators are also considering HB110, which would create a nonpartisan primary election for State School Board candidates. This would give voters a way to narrow the number of candidates before the November election.

"As it stands right now, if five, 10, 15 people sign up for the same spot, they will all go to the general election in November," said Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City. "It's possible that someone wins with 10 percent of the vote, or less."

Hall said if some other method for electing board members passes, it would override his bill.

HB110 passed the House in a 65-8 vote, and it now awaits approval by the Senate.

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