SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Democratic lawmakers renewed their call for greater investment in education Wednesday, while also offering criticisms of school grading and an expensive proposal by House Speaker Becky Lockhart to increase technology in schools.
At a meeting at the state Capitol, members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses presented the education-related bills they are sponsoring this year and championed the role of trained educators in guiding student success.
"There’s a lot of talk in the Capitol about public education," Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said. "Sometimes there’s action, which has often accomplished little more than making the lives of educators more stressful and difficult."
The meeting came on the 10th day of the 2014 Legislature, which also saw final passage of the base budget for public education and comments from conservative lawmakers on the positive and collaborative relationship that has developed between state lawmakers and education officials.
During Wednesday's meeting of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, representatives from the State School Board and State Office of Education presented their budget requests for the new year, which include funding for the additional 10,300 students expected to enter Utah public schools next year, an increase in per-pupil funding levels, and targeted investments for professional development and school counselors.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, both commended the State Office of Education for aligning budget requests with priorities established by a special task force that has met throughout the year to discuss public education. Gibson also categorized recent discussions with educators as the highest level of collaboration he had seen in his time as a member of the appropriations committee.
But Democratic lawmakers maintain that the conversations surrounding money for schools largely preserves the status quo and does little to advance the state's educational goals.
Not only is Utah last in the nation in terms of per-pupil funding, Briscoe said, but the state lags behind Idaho, the next lowest state, by $365 million or $648 per student.
"Utah schools have been underfunded for so long, we hardly need to remind anyone where Utah ranks when it comes to supporting our children in public schools," Briscoe said.
He described school grading, a controversial measure that began in the state last year, as a program that labels schools as failing while doing little to help combat the factors that contribute to low student performance.
"Giving each school a letter grade without support will not help schools succeed," Briscoe said.
He also took aim at Lockhart's proposal to flood schools with technology. The specifics of the bill, which is being sponsored by Gibson, have not yet been released, but the initiative is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement.
Lockhart has stated she does not intend to call for a tax increase to finance the bill, meaning the funds would be reallocated at the expense of other education or state programs.
Flanked by House and Senate Democrats, Briscoe said Wednesday it is not the amount of money spent on education that promotes success but how and on whom state tax dollars are allocated.
He described Lockhart's proposal — which would potentially require a greater expenditure than the $261 million of additional funding for all of public and higher education in Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget — as an "audacious move."
"If I had $300 million to spend on public education, would I put it all in one basket? No." Briscoe said.
Lockhart said she has met with House and Senate leadership to discuss her proposal — which is expected to be unveiled by early next week — and has received "a lot of agreement" from her colleagues. She also said she looks forward to reviewing the education bills sponsored by Democratic lawmakers to see what overlap exists with her own initiative.
"We're realizing we're all talking about the same thing here, which is helping kids and modernizing the education system," Lockhart said.
One of the few proposals that would generate new tax revenue comes from Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay. The proposal seeks to increase funding for schools by eliminating the personal and dependent state income tax deductions.
Jones said Wednesday that she plans to file a substitute bill that would allow up to two deductions, which is estimated to raise $267 million for schools while costing the average family of three just less than $12 each month.
Jones' bill was initially amended to phase out the income tax deduction, but she said she decided to allow up to two deductions as a way of providing a "soft landing" for Utah's families while still raising money for schools.
"It’s the only long-term, significant funding that we’re even talking about," Jones said.
In regards to higher education, Commissioner David Buhler and the presidents of Utah Valley University, Weber State University and Snow College presented lawmakers with their budget priorities Wednesday.
In a unique initiative this year, the Utah System of Higher Education is calling for roughly $70 million in acute equity funding to establish a per-student funding floor of $4,800 at Utah's colleges and universities.
The funding floor would be largely used to address capacity at Utah's high-growth schools, Buhler said, and is notable in that the University of Utah and Utah State University have effectively agreed to forgo equity funding this year in service of the other institutions in the state.
Rep. Dana Layton, R-Orem, described the equity funding proposal as a "rare opportunity" in that all of the state's college and university presidents are united in a common goal. Requests for mission-based funding and compensation adjustments come every year, she said, but a similar agreement on a per-student funding floor may never again be on the table.
"In my mind, it’s even more important to fund that than any of the other priorities," Layton said.
Utah Valley University currently receives the least amount of funding on a per-student basis — due in part to a surge in enrollment after gaining university status — and would similarly receive the largest bump to reach the $4,800 funding floor.
UVU President Matthew Holland said those funds would be used to increase capacity, particularly in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields, and would potentially go toward establishing a differential tuition structure to preserve the school's dual mission of being both a community college and a four-year university.
"We need these basic infusions to carry out our mission and expand to meet the demand," Holland said. "This really is absolutely essential."
He complimented his fellow presidents in working together to reach a proposal that would address some of the funding inequities that have persisted in the state.
"I do think it has been a moment of statesmanship and looking to the greater good," he said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche