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SALT LAKE CITY — Taxes, technology, testing and teacher salaries were among a long list of bills debated by the Legislature that will change how schools are funded, how students are taught and how parents get involved.
It's a year of increase for education, with about $510 million in new money going to public schools. That includes $48.6 million for enrollment growth and a 4 percent increase to the state's funding formula for public education, the weighted pupil unit.
That also includes a $75 million tax increase lawmakers approved for education. Utah's property tax, which makes up 40 percent of school funding, hasn't increased since 1981. Since then, the state has lost an estimated $90 million to inflation.
But SB97, which the governor has said he will sign, would adjust the property tax rate to bring in additional revenue. For most families, the adjustment would cost an extra $46 per year. But the increase would be the equivalent of adding another 3 percent to the WPU, giving flexible money to schools that need it most, said bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan.
Gov. Gary Herbert originally proposed $503 million in new money for education, with a 6.25 percent increase to the WPU. The approved budget allocations don't exactly match Herbert's proposal, but he said he was pleased with the finished product and the flexibility it gives schools in using money.
"Basically, everything that we asked for from the standpoint of the total number of dollars into education is what we're going to receive. That's a remarkable number," Herbert said. "It's a different way to get to the same end. Parts of it I think are good, parts of it I would have done differently. But that's the process."
Despite the new money and an overall state surplus of $739 million, a one-to-one student technology initiative wasn't in the budget this year. SB222 would have given $75 million to schools to cover one-fourth the cost of developing the infrastructure, deploying personal devices and training teachers on how to use them effectively.
Basically, everything that we asked for from the standpoint of the total number of dollars into education is what we're going to receive. That's a remarkable number.
–Gov. Gary Herbert
Instead, lawmakers substituted the bill to conduct an inventory of the state's current technology resources and needs. Before the next legislative session, the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Education and Telehealth Network will present their findings to a legislative interim committee.
"It needs to be their plans, not ours," said bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. "That's what will ensure deployment with fidelity."
Science, technology, engineering and math education, collectively known as STEM, was a strong focus for lawmakers in other ways. HB213, pending the governor's approval, would require schools to implement adequate Internet filtering for school technology devices, whether used on or off campus.
Two pieces of legislation to better prepare students for college math coursework also await the governor's signature. SB196 will require high schoolers to demonstrate the math competency required to enter college or to earn a technical certificate without having to take remedial math after graduation. HR5 also passed, asking the State School Board to require that high schoolers take four years of math unless they can demonstrate adequate proficiency early on.
Legislators approved SB175, a bill that would deploy a smartphone app for students to report bullying, violence and other crimes. The app would also connect students considering suicide directly with a licensed social worker.
Three technology initiatives were not funded. HB335 asked for $700,000 to further a STEM initiative with schools through Southern Utah and Dixie State universities. SB107 would have given $2 million to schools to provide computer coding classes to junior and high schoolers. HB69 would have spent $1 million on computer software for English and writing teachers to give faster feedback to students.
Student testing was a source of debate for lawmakers, who considered bills to introduce new tests as well as to determine whether Utah students are tested too much.
SB60 would require students to pass an immigrant citizenship test before graduating high school. SB204 would clarify parents' rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. HCR7 is a resolution asking state education leaders to examine current testing methods to see where testing could be reduced.
All three await the governor's signature.
SB279, which would have created a task force to consider doing away with Utah's year-end assessment known as SAGE, did not pass.
Lawmakers passed SB235, which would require schools that perform in the bottom 3 percent of Utah's school grading system to implement academic turnaround initiatives with outside help. It provides financial rewards for schools that improve within three years, but can reorganize school management for those that don't.
After lengthy debate, lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on how to adjust the election process for Utah's State School Board. Last year, a federal judge decided that the current system could be considered unconstitutional, and the Legislature was tasked with finding a new method to elect board members.
But the House turned down HB186, a last-minute compromise bill which would have made the election partisan for one year and allowed voters to decide on a constitutional amendment to allow the governor to appoint board members with approval from the Senate in future elections.
It remains unclear how or when the issue will be resolved.
"Looks like we'll let the judge decide," said House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.
The Legislature approved a new funding program for higher education, giving $16 million for performance-based compensation for college instructors, as well as $8 million for institutions that meet other goals. Those include degrees awarded, services provided to traditionally underserved students, responsiveness to workforce needs and research programs.
Other bills are pending approval by the governor.
• HB447 would require parents to opt their children into sex education classes in order for them to participate.
• HB345 would prohibit convicted felony sex offenders from working at schools.
• HB203 would provide a $4,100 salary raise for certain STEM teachers.
• SB117 would create a pilot program to train teachers in working with students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy