SALT LAKE CITY — The value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of public education funding in Utah, would be boosted 4% under the latest recommendations of the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
That’s slightly less than the 4.5% increase recommended by Gov. Gary Herbert and the 6% request by school boards, including the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Education Association.
On the other hand, the budget recommendations approved by the subcommittee on Tuesday included funding for many initiatives that are priorities to state education officials such as $18.6 million for optional expanded kindergarten, $10 million for preschool through third grade learning, and $10 million for a grant program to mentor and train new and aspiring school principals.
Subcommittee co-chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said some recommendations may be adjusted once lawmakers receive new revenue estimates.
“I’m very optimistic, and normally I’m not, that we’re going to have more income tax money when we get the revenues either this week or next week,” Hillyard said.
In January, lawmakers were told that the state has $726 million in new revenue from the Education Fund.
If there is additional revenue, Hillyard said the subcommittee should request that more funding go toward the weighted pupil unit, the Teacher and Student Success Act, and to support SB104, equity legislation sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. The goal of the legislation is to help school districts that have less ability to generate local property taxes for schools.
Last year was the inaugural year of the Teacher and Student Success Act. Lawmakers appropriated $100 million toward the initiative, which sent millions of dollars directly to Utah schools to develop and carry out local plans intended to improve student achievement.
Hillyard and subcommittee co-chairman Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, will present the subcommittee recommendations to the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The recommendations also include an increased number of weighted pupil units for special education under HB205, sponsored by Rep. Marcia Judkins, R-Provo.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, the legislation could result in an estimated 2,827 additional units. The legislation does not affect the value of the WPU but would slightly increases the total number of units, which now exceed 888,000. The unit is presently valued at $3,532, but would increase to $3,673.28 if the 4% increase is approved.
The subcommittee’s recommendations for one-time funding includes $10 million for teacher preparation scholarships and $100 million for a teacher retention initiative.
Lawmakers expect the Utah State Board of Education, before the end of the session, to brief members of the Legislature on how it would structure and fund an initiative intended to retain the state’s educators.
Hillyard said he believes salary plays a role, as do working conditions and opportunities for training. The program would be developed as a pilot, he said.
One component of the initiative would be to fund additional paid days for teacher training, said Eliason.
Another big ticket item is $63.5 million in one-time money for a school safety initiative for “school hardening” measures, although schools that have added physical safety features to buildings using local funds could seek the funding for other purposes.
If a school district uses the funding for purposes other than physical safety improvements to schools, “we’re assuming they’ve already taken care of those (safety) issues,” Eliason said.
Lawmakers have already funded education growth for the coming school year. In fall 2019, public school enrollment was 666,858 students, an enrollment increase of 1.19% over the previous year, or 7,906 students.
It remains to be seen if lawmakers enact an income tax cut, which would affect education budget deliberations because in Utah, income tax is constitutionally earmarked for education.