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SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed a radical shift Tuesday in education funding, linking state aid and graduation to students' mastery of basic skills instead of "seat-time" attendance.
The state Board of Education is ready to test the funding concept by this fall if legislators give it the authority, Leavitt said during his State of the State address. The board already is moving to adopt a competency standard for high school graduation.
Leavitt called the attendance-based funding formula for public schools an anachronism and changes a "big deal" that will bring a new value to education. He also pleaded with legislators to maintain or increase education funding -- "first, no backsliding" -- despite a difficult budget year.
Taking the long view, Leavitt said, "In the economic race of this century, the society with the best-educated people wins. Period. End of conversation."
Leavitt's plan has the support of the state board of education and tentative support from the Board of Regents that oversees Utah's nine public colleges and universities. Those schools already provide limited opportunity for students to gain credit without sitting in classes, but would need more time to move to a full competency-based system of graduation, Higher Education Commissioner Cecelia Foxley said.
Utah's Colleges of Applied Technology already base graduation on students' mastery of skills.
For nearly a century, public schools in Utah and other states have used the Carnegie credit system, which dictates how much time students must spend studying subjects -- a system Leavitt said organizes schools like a factory. Many high school students in Utah fulfill their requirements before senior year, and, he said, learn to "chill" that year.
"If they pass their classes with a D- or better in the first three years, they have nearly all the credits they need to graduate and they waste their senior year," he said.
Leavitt also affirmed his opposition to tuition income-tax breaks for parents who want to send their children to private schools. The Legislature will take up the issue this year, motivated largely by public schools' disappointing results.
Leavitt said Utah can improve education without abandoning public schools, and he pointed to fledgling charter schools.
"The best of both worlds is a competency-measured charter school. That is exactly what we are creating in our six new high-tech high schools," he said. The first such school, the Academy of Math, Science and Engineering, will open this fall at Cottonwood High School.
Leavitt devoted much of his 35-minute speech to education, but also sounded his themes of budget reconciliation, saying Utah needs to stop subsidizing road construction and water development with sales tax revenue. That would free up money for education, he said.
He also called for reforming the state's disparate system of collecting sales tax, and boosting revenues by extending the tax to Internet, mail-order and telephone sales. That would require an agreement among all of the states.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)