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Utah lawmakers consider education bills, including teacher raises

Utah lawmakers consider education bills, including teacher raises

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah legislators this week approved a proposal to name a section of 1-15 after late Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart.

Additionally, they tackled several major education proposals, including one to raise teachers' pay, one to create a task force to evaluate student testing and one that would provide more resources to students with learning disabilities.

Here are the highlights from these stories:

House committee approves proposal to name highway section after Becky Lockhart

A House panel endorsed a proposal Wednesday that would name a section of I-15 after late Speaker Becky Lockhart.

Lockhart, the first woman to serve as Utah House speaker, died at age 46 on Jan. 17 from an unrecoverable and extremely rare neurodegenerative brain disease.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, is sponsoring HB385 to honor and recognize Lockhart as instrumental in rebuilding I-15 from Lehi to Santaquin.

“This was really a cutting-edge, remarkable project that came in significantly under budget and ahead of time using some wonderful innovation, and the late Speaker Lockhart was one of the key cogs in the wheel in bringing it about,” Stratton said.

The bill would designate that stretch of the previously named Veterans Memorial Highway stretch as the Rebecca D. Lockhart section of the Veterans Memorial Highway.

Teacher salary increase bill advances to Senate

Math, science and special education teachers in Utah may be getting a raise.

The Senate Education Committee on Thursday unanimously recommended HB203, which would increase those teachers' pay by $5,100 in 2016. Wages would increase over the next six years until they reach $10,000 above current annual salaries.

The initiative would cost the state $13.4 million in its first year. By the time salary raises reach their maximum in 2021, the state would be paying $42.4 million.

To qualify for the raise, teachers must have a degree in their area of instruction. But the bill was amended to allow the Utah State Office of Education flexibility to award the wage increases on an individual basis to some teachers whose college experience has significant overlap with other topics.

"What we found out was there are some educators who … had taken nearly the same classes, but may not have that same degree," said bill sponsor Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane.

David Fullmer, western division president of the National Association for Music Education and Director of Bands at Utah Valley University, said the bill would leave out other well-deserving teachers in other subjects.

"We are concerned as music educators that there may be some unintended consequences by the passage of this bill," Fullmer said. "We worry about the message it's sending to the other really fine educators in fine arts, language arts, world languages (and) all of the other subjects — (an) unintended message that these subjects are somehow secondary and less important."

Sydnee Dickson, deputy superintendent of the Utah State Office of Education, said the salary raise is targeted at areas of teacher shortages, which are often caused by competitive jobs outside of education.

School counselor training bill gets preliminary approval in Senate

Utah senators gave preliminary approval Thursday to an initiative that would provide training for school counselors to bring them up to date on today's college and career environment.

HB198 would direct $440,000 from the education fund to create an online certification program for counselor professional development in helping students take the necessary steps to prepare for college or a job after high school.

The grant would be enough to enroll about 600 counselors, and the Legislature may appropriate additional funds next year if demand for the program is high, according to bill sponsor Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek.

The bill would require the Utah State Office of Education to partner with the Utah State Board of Regents and regional businesses to develop the 120-hour voluntary training program for working counselors.

Bill would create task force to evaluate student testing

Last month, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, sparked a debate about SAGE testing, saying he would back legislation to create a task force to consider eliminating the test.

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee unanimously passed a bill with no debate that would create that task force.

SB279 would charge the task force of lawmakers and State School Board members to evaluate whether Utah schools are "offering authentic formative assessments throughout the year to recognize mastery when it occurs," and to make recommendations on changes needed to "hold student mastery as a constant and time as a variable."

That is, the task force would consider whether to eliminate the year-end Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence and replace it with another means of testing that measures student performance multiple times in a school year.

SAGE has come under fire because of its high-stakes nature and because it is only a once-a-year snapshot of student performance. Stephenson and other critics say the test is an inaccurate picture of student performance and that it places an undue burden on teachers and resources.

Bill OK'd to provide resources for students with learning disabilities

About 80 percent of people with learning disabilities in the U.S. have dyslexia, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But 75 percent of Utah students with dyslexia are denied special help because they "aren't failing enough" in class, according to Karee Atkinson, president of advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia Utah.

Atkinson said parents and teachers of children with the disability struggle to find resources to help them. Meanwhile, the students' reading ability gets further and further behind.

"We are the parents. We have children who are struggling to read. And as they struggle to read, it's sometimes very, very difficult for them to get help," Atkinson said. "Everything we know says waiting is the absolute wrong approach. … There's no reason to wait. There's every reason to move ahead. Our teachers want this knowledge."

The House Education Committee on Wednesday passed a bill that would appropriate $750,000 to create a three-year pilot program to provide training for teachers and resources to enhance interventions for students in kindergarten through fifth grade at risk for reading difficulties, including dyslexia.

SB117 would allow up to five school districts or charter schools to receive $30,000 per school to invest in training and materials. Schools would apply for the grant through the Utah State Office of Education, which would award the funds.

Bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said investing in earlier interventions for students with reading disabilities would save money that is eventually spent on special education for those students.

Bill to replace 'dirty buses' moves on to Senate

After multiple meetings of lengthy debate, a bill proposing to provide funds to replace old diesel-burning buses with alternative fuel buses passed the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

HB49, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, would appropriate $20 million in one-time money to replace, modify or retrofit some 350 old buses with matching funds from school districts.

But some lawmakers said the bill in its original form would have rewarded districts that have neglected to replace or maintain buses on their own and penalize districts that have proactively done so.

Legislators noted that the Davis School District has 141 buses that were purchased prior to 2002, but only half of them have been retrofitted since then. In the Box Elder School District, all of the district's 33 buses older than 2002 have been retrofitted.

But a substitute bill sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, was adopted and would distribute the $20 million evenly to qualifying districts through the capital outlay funding model. Districts that have already taken care of their dirty buses can spend the money on infrastructure for natural gas buses or other capital projects.

Initiative for better school Internet filtering moves to Senate floor

With an increasing use of mobile devices in Utah schools, lawmakers are calling for better Internet filtering to protect students while on and off campus.

HB213, which was unanimously upheld by the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, would require local school community councils to have the infrastructure in place to provide adequate filtering of all school devices no matter where they're used.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, also calls on educators to talk to parents about how they can help their students use the Internet safely and develop "digital citizenship."

Carolyn White, a member of the Beaver County Board of Education, said the district has already implemented the infrastructure to route all Internet access on school devices through the district's filtering system. But she said the bill limits the ability for other districts to handle the task on their own.

"Not all of us have community councils that would maybe have that expertise or maybe want that burden added on their plate," White said.

But Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who stood in for Stratton, said the bill wouldn't be an unreasonable ask for educators.

"This doesn't seem to be an onerous mandate to require that children are protected," Stephenson said.

Senate OKs bill for school crisis reporting app

The Utah Senate gave its final approval to a bill that would facilitate a smartphone application to better connect students with resources to deal with violence, harassment and suicide.

SB175, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, passed its third Senate reading in a 22-3 vote Wednesday. The bill would remove sunset provisions for the School Safety Commission pilot program, appropriating $150,000 from the education fund to make the program ongoing.

The bill allows for licensure of a donated smartphone app for students to send reports of violence or harassment directly to their school resource officer. The app would also connect students who report potential suicides with a licensed social worker at the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

House committee rejects class size reduction bill

Concerns over accountability, funding calculations and apparent complacency with allocated funds prompted the House Education Committee to reject a bill to increase school funding to reduce class sizes.

SB106, which failed in a 6-3 vote Thursday, would have added $10 million in new money to a $115 million fund appropriated each year to hire additional teachers and build needed facilities.

Most of the money would have been distributed the same as current funds, but $2 million was targeted at districts — not charter schools — with both high student enrollment and a property tax base below the state average, according to bill sponsor Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville.

While lawmakers agreed that class sizes continue to be a problem for many Utah schools, some took issue with the fact that districts aren't required to show how class size reduction money is spent or whether it does any good.

"The feeling I've gotten is it just gets lost in the overall funding," said Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. "I've never seen any type of report or explanation or accountability or anything at all in those areas. … Every year, I watch the classroom size reduction money go out the door."

Should Utah high schoolers be required to take four years of math?

The Utah State Board of Education may get yet another request to put a heavier emphasis on math proficiency among high schoolers.

The House Education Committee unanimously approved a resolution Thursday urging education leaders to require students take four years of math in high school, unless they can demonstrate adequate proficiency before their senior year.

HR5, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, allows the State School Board to decide how to determine whether a student should take a math class each year.

The resolution and another bill, as well as recommendations to the State School Board from the Utah System of Higher Education, are all aimed at reducing the need for remedial math classes in Utah's colleges and universities.

SB196, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, would require college-bound high schoolers to demonstrate college entry-level math proficiency before graduation. Students planning to enter the workforce immediately after high school would have to demonstrate the math skills necessary to obtain a career and technology education certificate.

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