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SALT LAKE CITY — State and education leaders have already begun the process of developing a comprehensive 10-year education plan for Utah, but as the number of projected students continues to grow, so does state leaders' urgency to finish the plan that aims for the success of all students.
In the first Education Interim Committee meeting this year, lawmakers met with top educators on Wednesday to get a sense of what the plan will mean for students and how it will preserve Utah's economic health.
"We are recognized as the best-managed state in the nation," said Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane. "But the only way that we can really make the best use of our education dollars is if all systems are marching to the same drummer, if we're working together, and that money is being spent in a way that's consistent with a game plan with a specific mission and specific goals."
Recent estimates have shown an extra 50,000 students will likely be attending a Utah college in the next 10 years, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. Looking further down the road, Utah can expect close to 1 million K-12 students by 2050, an increase of about 385,000 students from today, according to the Utah Foundation.
Ethnic minorities continue to make up a greater portion of Utah students, mirroring national projections that show minorities becoming the majority within 30 years, according to the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
Accommodating the growth and ensuring the students' academic proficiency from preschool to college is no small feat, but Gov. Gary Herbert's Education Excellence Commission is heading the effort to plan for future students. A finalized 10-year plan will likely be completed this fall, according to Tami Pyfer, education adviser to the governor.
Currently, the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah State Board of Regents, and the board of trustees of the Utah College of Applied Technology are in the process of providing input for the plan.
As a framework, the governor's office provided eight "anchors" for educators to consider while contributing. These include student proficiency, expanding access, enhancing educator practices and meeting economic and employer needs.
Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said the State School Board is including three "irreducible nonnegotiables" in its portion of the plan, which are a results-oriented education system, equity for all students and adaptability to economic needs.
"We must develop a strategic plan that we can stick to over a long period of time, recognizing that we are in a period of creative chaos," Smith said.
How education is funded will also have to change. Having more students will require a larger dollar amount, but a bright spot for the future is a dropping dependency ratio as school-age youth start to represent a smaller portion of Utah's population, Smith said.
"We now have a system that is totally predicated on counting seat time for children as its funding mechanism — very problematic as we move into the modern world," he said. "We have a huge opportunity to re-examine that."
The Utah State Board of Regents has identified affordable student participation, timely completion and fostering innovative practices as areas of focus in its portion of the statewide education plan.
Currently, fewer than half of Utah college students graduate within six years of enrollment, even though 86 percent of high school graduates say they intend to earn a college degree, according to a December report by the Utah Foundation.
This continues despite a statewide goal of having 66 percent of Utah's working population with a college degree or certificate by 2020.
"One thing that higher education needs to take a more explicit look at is doing a better job of completing students that are within our system," said Spencer Jenkins, spokesman for the Utah System of Higher Education.
We are recognized as the best-managed state in the nation. But the only way that we can really make the best use of our education dollars is if all systems are marching to the same drummer, if we're working together, and that money is being spent in a way that's consistent with a game plan with a specific mission and specific goals.
–Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane
Capacity also poses a challenge as Utah will gain the equivalent of an entire institution in its college student body in the next six years. Jenkins said institutions are trying to balance the cost of expanding physical and digital infrastructure with the need for affordable tuition.
"These are capacity challenges," he said. "Our schools are very sensitive to what the costs are to get a college education. We're committed to making sure colleges are affordable and accessible for Utahns."
The Utah College of Applied Technology is taking a similar approach, planning to provide adequate facilities for a growing student body and responding to the changing demands from Utah's workforce. The college is also taking into account the eight anchors provided by the Education Excellence Commission, according to Robert Brems, president of the college.
"We will adapt what we do in UCAT as we look at things such as increased content and proficiency for all of our students. That means that we at UCAT are going to try to remain state-of-the-art in all that we do," Brems said.
Lawmakers are also asking how the plan will affect education policy. This year, the Legislature passed more than 100 education bills as well as significant increases to education funding. But how the Legislature will fund schools and introduce education policy in the coming years of population growth remains unclear.
"I guess for us as legislators, the real issue is how do we translate that plan into specific actions that we should take," Last said.
Smith said he hopes the comprehensive plan will serve as a frame of reference as educators and lawmakers work to find solutions leading to student achievement.
"What I would hope to do is to come to you and say, 'We have a plan to change our educational outcome,' and to ask you to engage with us in an investment," Smith told members of the committee. "I believe we can change the nature of the narrative to explain what actions we believe we could take to improve outcomes for students and then engage with you in a meaningful discussion to get there."