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Senate approves public education budget that raises per-pupil spending by 5%

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - Mar. 10, 2020 at 7:05 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate gave unanimous approval to SB2 Monday, the state’s public education budget, which is highlighted by a 5% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit.

The WPU is the basic building block of public education funding and gives school districts and charter boards maximum flexibility to spend the funds on their specific needs, although it largely goes toward educator salaries and benefits.

The bill sets the value of each weighted pupil unit at $3,710 for fiscal year 2021, which represents $170 million in new ongoing funding for Utah schools through increases to the WPU alone.

Prior to the start of the legislative session, lawmakers funded $50.6 million in ongoing funds for enrollment growth, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, co-chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

New spending for public education is expected to be about $400 million, which includes some new initiatives in early childhood education, training and mentoring principals and a funding program for geographically isolated schools.

The budget also contains $4.3 million for school-level arts programs such as the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Elementary Arts Program and Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools, which help fund performances of Ballet West and the Utah Symphony in schools around the state.

Hillyard said the public education budget subcommittee had set a goal of appropriating $310 million, “which was about 60% of all new money and we went over it. I was really impressed Executive Appropriations was able to do that.”

The public education appropriations subcommittee has worked hard to develop a responsible budget for Utah schools yet address pressing needs of the public education system, he said.

“I think we’ve worked hard not only in the funding, but spending money where the state board and the superintendents have wanted it. I think that’s been as important as the money we’ve given,” Hillyard said.

The budget also includes a total $7.1 million in ongoing and one-time money for supplements for math, science and special education teachers. Teachers are particularly needed in these subject areas and the incentives are intended to keep teachers of math and science in the classroom instead of leaving for higher-paying private sector jobs.

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The bill also includes $5 million in ongoing funding for busing, which is particularly critical for schools in rural Utah, said Hillyard.

Hillyard said state lawmakers enjoy their working relationship with the Utah State Board of Education in developing the education budget and policy priorities.

“They’ve done a good job of being realistic and good with their budgets,” he said

Another highlight is $5 million for UPSTART, a computer-based preschool program intended to prepare children for kindergarten. The program is available to all Utah residents but low-income families and English learners receive priority in registration.

It also includes $7 million to support the state’s computer science initiative, a public-private partnership intended to make computer science available to every Utah K-12 public school student by 2022 to help prepare them for the future workforce.

While the budget reflects robust income tax revenue, Hillyard said it also reflects the structural imbalance in revenue that the state must eventually address.

While this year’s effort was sound, there is a great deal of uncertainty on the horizon, he said.

“I think we’re all holding our breath with the coronavirus issue and what’s happening with the economy,” Hillyard said.

Hillyard said state lawmakers enjoy their working relationship with the Utah State Board of Education in developing the education budget and policy priorities.

“They’ve done a good job of being realistic and good with their budgets,” he said.

SB2 will next be considered by the Utah House of Representatives.

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