When we take general funds to pay for transportation, we are taking funds away from education. We’re coming to a point where that just isn’t going to work anymore. —Senate President Wayne Niederhauser
SALT LAKE CITY — Education took top billing as the 2014 legislative session drew to a close Thursday evening.
In SB2, lawmakers appropriated an additional $168 million in one-time and ongoing funding to the state's public schools, including $62 million for enrollment growth and a 2.5 percent increase in per-pupil spending.
Utah's colleges and universities received more than $75 million in SB3, including a $50 million boon in equity funding to the state's open-enrollment schools, where a surging student population has stretched state dollars thin.
"This is going to be enormously helpful to these open-enrollment institutions that have grown so dramatically over the last number of years and who need to have capacity to continue to grow," said David Buhler, commissioner of higher education.
Funding for public and higher education accounts for more than half of all new revenues allocated by the Legislature this year. Lawmakers were also able to meet the top priorities of officials at both levels of education.
But with an ever-growing student population, swelling class sizes, some of the lowest funding levels in the country and a statewide goal to increase graduation rates and degree attainment, educators and lawmakers alike say the current practice of relying on year-to-year economic growth may not hold for long.
On Thursday, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser spoke to the issue of transportation costs, often viewed as the funding rival of education, and how a dollar for Utah's roads frequently comes at the expense of Utah's classrooms.
"When we take general funds to pay for transportation, we are taking funds away from education," Niederhauser said. "We’re coming to a point where that just isn’t going to work anymore."
Budget negotiations were further complicated this year by the introduction of a massive school technology proposal by House Speaker Becky Lockhart. The $200 million HB131 — an amount greater than the total new funding awarded to public education — sought to overhaul the state's technology infrastructure, train educators and eventually see a personal learning device in the hands of each of Utah's more than 600,000 students.
Senate leaders balked at the cost, offering $26 million instead for an incremental rollout, and Gov. Gary Herbert said he would veto any figure greater than $30 million. The stalemate threatened to force a special session of the Legislature to resolve the budget, but House leaders receded from their plans entirely, allowing for a consensus budget to move forward.
"I’ve been here for 16 years, and I know how to take a punch," Lockhart said of the defeat of the technology initiative. "You know the real fighters by how they react after they get hit."
Lockhart, who has announced that she will not seek re-election this year, said she remains committed to achieving a so-called "1-to-1" device ratio. She said she will continue to work with her colleagues in the House and Senate to examine ways to increase technology in schools.
"I will still be the speaker of the House for nine more months, and I’m the chair of the Education Task Force that we just voted to extend for another year, so there will be plenty of time to move that initiative forward," Lockhart said.
Buhler said he was grateful for the work of the Legislature in funding higher education. Beyond the equity funding, which will be used to address capacity by hiring staff and opening up "bottleneck" courses, lawmakers approved $3.5 million for the Regents and New Century Scholarship programs and funding for infrastructure upgrades at the University of Utah, new classroom buildings at Utah State University's regional campuses and the construction of a science building at Weber State University that has been a construction priority for several years.
"This is hugely important and very helpful and I think shows a tremendous commitment on the part of the Legislature to devote these kinds of resources to higher education," Buhler said.
For public education, lawmakers passed HB150, which appropriates $20 million to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education — collectively known as STEM. They also approved $3 million for HB96, a program that allows private firms to invest in the early education of at-risk students, and $1 million for SB43, a grant program that will create after-school programming for students affected by intergenerational poverty.
Lawmakers approved changes to the school grading system in SB209, which penalizes schools by a single letter grade for low participation rather than an automatic F and excludes new schools and alternative schools from grading. They also approved $100,000 to help low-income students afford Advanced Placement testing with SB140.
The Legislature also approved $250,000 for SB40, which seeks to increase the rigor of economic and financial literacy education in high schools through the creation of new standards, an end-of-level assessment and a financial literacy endorsement for teachers.
Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said his general reaction to the work of the Legislature is very positive. He said the money appropriated for enrollment growth more accurately reflects the costs associated with new students than past years, and the 2.5 percent increase in per-student funding is reflective of the current state of the economy.
"Would we like more? Could we use more? Absolutely," Menlove said, "but I think public education has been treated very fairly in those areas."
Many of the priorities of the State School Board had been met, he said, including investment in early interventions through HB96, SB43 and funding to expand access to the at-home preschool program UPSTART. Menlove said those bills will help prepare at-risk students to enter kindergarten and maintain grade-level proficiency in their early years.
An unmet priority for the board was an increase in the amount of technology in schools, he said. The deliberations over Lockhart's technology initiative were frustrating, Menlove said, because the level of funding was constantly changing and ultimately failed to materialize.
"The smallest number I heard was $26 million, and the biggest number I heard was $300 million toward some type of technology initiative," he said. "But at the end of the day, there’s just nothing toward technology."
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said she appreciated that legislators prioritized funding for enrollment growth and per-pupil spending. But she added that funding levels have not yet caught up to pre-recession levels.
Roughly half of the new per-student funds is expected to be absorbed by pre-existing retirement and Social Security obligations, and Gallagher-Fishbaugh said the state needs to begin thinking about long-term funding solutions for public schools.
"From pre-recession until now, the significant cuts that have happened in public education are really and truly impacting classrooms, teachers and our ability to provide a quality education to every child," she said.
Two bills sponsored in the Senate, SB111 and SB118, sought to generate new revenue for schools through tax reforms. The bills, while technically not tax rate hikes, would have increased the financial burden on Utah families by capturing inflation in property values and limiting the allowable amount of income tax exemptions.
Both bills failed to gain the support of the tax-averse Legislature, but Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who sponsored the income tax exemption bill, said the debate contributed to a change in the way lawmakers discuss revenue for schools.
"The new dialogue is, ‘Yes, we need to look at different options, new options, for significant new ongoing funding for public education,'" Jones said.
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