SALT LAKE CITY — An effort to give educators more time out of class to improve teaching practices is getting closer to gaining approval from the Utah Legislature.

Lawmakers hope that the added focus on teacher professional learning will give educators more chances to learn from each other and find ways to better help students struggling in specific subjects.

"I do realize that while we hate to take time away from students, sometimes it's probably more effectively used in professional development if it really helps the teacher become more effective in the classroom," said bill sponsor Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane.

HB28 asks the state to provide $30 million, which would be awarded as grants to schools that present a qualifying plan for professional development.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, having passed the House in a 61-12 vote early this month. Last acknowledged that it's unlikely the bill will be fully funded, but the concept of letting teachers direct their own professional learning is still widely supported.

"I think the closer we get to the people in the classroom, the better those decisions are going to be," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.

He said the effort is intended to begin restoring some $78 million that was once appropriated to teacher professional development each year. During the Great Recession, that money was diverted to a more broad category of per-student funding since money wasn't available that year to account for enrollment growth.

While the money was still given to schools through the weighted pupil unit, Utah's distribution model for equalized student funding, it didn't continue to go toward professional learning in all schools.

"There was a very real loss," Last said. "While we may have kept the weighted pupil unit from going down, money that was going into education was essentially taken away just to keep that number level."

But some educators say the funding should still be allocated to schools through the weighted pupil unit, giving them more discretion on how to use the money. The Utah Education Association opposed limiting the new funding to professional development unless the Legislature first provides a 5 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit.

The $30 million proposed in the bill would be enough to increase the unit by more than 1 percent.

"We're looking for the most local control possible, getting as much money to the local (schools) to make the determinations of how they're going to spend that money," Sara Jones, UEA's director of government relations and political action, said early this month.

Members of the Utah State Board of Education, however, have been supportive of the measure, though it falls below funding for enrollment growth and a 3.5 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit on the board's priority list.

To qualify for a grant, schools would have to submit a professional learning plan to the Utah State Office of Education that is built on student performance data and prioritizes math and English instruction, in addition to other priorities established by the State School Board.

Schools could use the funding in a number of ways, such as hiring teaching assistants to work with students while teachers meet together to coach each other on ways to help struggling students.

Last said having the money allocated through a specific line item rather than through the weighted pupil unit would enhance accountability for how the money is spent.

"As long as the school district or charter is following the standards that are outlined, there's a great deal of flexibility" in how they could spend it, he said.

Sydnee Dickson, interim state superintendent of public instruction, said education leaders are supportive of schools having to develop plans that target the needs of individual stuents.

"Rather than something that's one-size-fits-all and imposed for everybody, this is really built from the ground up of teachers indicating the kinds of things they need," Dickson said. "You're looking at student data, first and foremost. You're determining where the gaps are in (student) learning. … And you have to really think about what skills and knowledge are required for me, as an educator, in order to close those gaps in the student data.

"That then leads to the design of professional learning," she said.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen