SALT LAKE CITY — School districts would be able to swap instructional days for teacher training under the terms of a bill that has passed the Senate and gained House committee approval Friday.

SB103, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, would allow a school district to use up to four classroom days for the purpose of educator professional development.

During the economic recession, much of the funding for professional development days was cut from the public education budget as a cost-saving measure. Osmond said the economic realities in the state do not allow for restoration of professional development days, but his bill would provide flexibility for school districts to set aside days within the academic year for training and preparation.

Osmond said that while classroom attendance is critical, there is little evidence that a particular number of classroom hours equate to high student performance. But he said teacher training and preparation have been shown to be an effective component of student outcomes.

"I think the key to this decision is it’s not really ours to make," Osmond said. "It should be up to the local school district, and we don’t allow them to make that call right now."

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, spoke in favor of giving local school districts flexibility in determining how to allocate resources for teacher training. He said funding for professional development was an earmarked line-item before it was cut, but since then lawmakers have focused on increasing the weighted pupil unit — the funding unit used for per-student allocations — which allows districts to spend funds as they see fit.

"I support this bill wholeheartedly," Nielson said. "With the resources that are there, let’s let the school board do their job."

But other lawmakers and members of the education community questioned why the state would allow for fewer instructional days when global trends are moving towards a greater number of classroom hours.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said students in some Asian countries attend school in excess of 200 days out of the year, which accumulates into significantly more instruction by the time they complete their education and enter the workforce.

"We, as a society, scratch our heads wondering why Chinese students are, on average, better prepared than American students," Eliason said.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, questioned the notion that political realities do not allow for professional development funding outside of classroom hours.

Moss said she hears about the large sums of money discussed for other pieces of legislation — likely referring to the $100 million that lawmakers are currently eyeing for a proposed technology initiative — and said it is a matter of priorities, not funding, that has led to limited teacher training.

"I cannot come to grips with the fact that we should take away classroom time," she said. "I just cannot accept that we have to make that kind of choice."

Representatives from several education organizations testified during the House Education Committee hearing, largely echoing the sentiment that they support investment in professional development but not at the cost of classroom time.

"We oppose this bill, but we celebrate Sen. Osmond for bringing this issue to the table," said Patti Harrington, of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

Committee Chairman Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, compared that sentiment to a drowning man who rejects a life preserver to wait for a rescue boat. He said funding of additional professional development days outside the academic year is a worthwhile debate, but one that exists separate from Osmond's bill.

"I do not disagree that there needs to be more money allocated to this, however that is another discussion," Gibson said.

The bill was ultimately approved by the committee in an 11-4 vote that largely followed party lines. Eliason joined the committee's three Democratic members in voting in opposition.

SB103 will now go before the House for final passage.

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