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State School Board’s funding priorities: growth, 6% bump in per-pupil funding and optional extended-day kindergarten

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education’s legislative funding priorities include the usual subjects of enrollment growth and a 6% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit.

According to the latest enrollment figures, some 666,858 students were enrolled in Utah schools this fall, up from 658,952 a year ago, or a 1.19% increase. Some $55.6 million in new funding is needed to fund growth for the next school year, according to board documents.

The weighted pupil unit, or WPU, is the basic building block of education funding and gives districts and charter schools a high degree of flexibility in addressing specific instructional needs. A 6% increase would require an appropriation of more than $200 million in new funding.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers approved a 4% increase to the value of the unit.

But other priorities adopted by the board Thursday include an increase in funding for optional enhanced kindergarten, $5 million in new state funding for school busing and $18.2 million for a school leadership initiative.

As the start of the 2020 General Session of the Utah Legislature approaches, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said she is frequently asked about the board’s funding priorities.

“I tell you what I keep saying: ‘Fund the plan, fund the strategic plan,’” she said. “I just want you to be mindful of your strategic plan and what you need to get there.”

The plan, developed by board staff and board members and approved by the state board, has four major goals: early learning, personalized teaching and learning, safe and healthy schools, and effective educators and learning.

Board vice chairwoman Brittney Cummins spoke in support of the board’s request for $18.6 million for optional extended kindergarten. The request comes as $2.88 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding for the Kindergarten Supplemental Enrichment Program is expected to expire.

“I think early learning is important and some of this funding is going away. How do we maintain this program and help provide more access to students to this important resource?” Cummins said.

The board’s business case for the funding says that without it, optional extended kindergarten programs and enriched programs in 46 schools “would be defunded and may be dismantled.”

About 40% of Utah’s kindergartners start school unprepared and need additional support, according to board documents.

To support early interventions for that 40% of incoming kindergartners, the enrichment program and the optional enhanced kindergarten program need a total of $26.2 million, an increase of $18.6 million.

Dickson said the board needs to make a case for early childhood education funding similar to its request for the Utah Schools Information Management System, which included well-defined needs and costs, and conveyed a sense of urgency for upgrades.

“I feel like we’re in that same space in early learning and especially around instruction in our early learning classrooms in literacy and mathematics. We know that. We have data,” she said.

Another board priority that supports the strategic plan is obtaining funding for school leadership development grants for schools, a school leadership scholarship, and an internship and funding for a state-level school leadership specialist.

According to the Wallace Foundation, “principals strongly shape the conditions for high-quality teaching and are the prime factor in determining whether teachers stay in high-needs schools.”

Funding student transportation was identified as another of the board’s top funding priorities.

Board member Cindy Davis said lagging state support of school busing costs has become an unfunded mandate.

“Right now this is instructional dollars used for a mandate,” she said. “You need to fix this.”