Lawmakers discuss early high school graduation

Published February 8, 2010 9:18 pm
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Sen. Chris Buttars isn't talking about dropping 12th grade any more.

Now, he's talking about making 12th grade optional for those students who finish their required credits early -- and some lawmakers are listening to the idea with interest.

"I like thinking outside of the box like this," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who co-chairs the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "I think it really makes us examine what we're doing."

Now, instead of trying to eliminate 12th grade, Buttars, R-West Jordan, is proposing the state save up to $60 million by giving students the option of graduating from high school early. Students who finish their high school requirements early are already allowed to graduate early, but Buttars' proposal would provide more incentives for students to do that and make that option clearer, he said.

Buttars said he's working on a bill on the concept.

"There are some [students] that really have a great 12th grade, but you talk to 100 kids and their parents, and I believe the majority of them will say, 'Well, my kid didn't do much in the 12th grade,'" Buttars said. "Everybody wants to talk about change ... But to tell you the truth, they're scared to death of it."

Several lawmakers praised Buttars on Monday for his creativity in trying to think of ways to ease the state's budget troubles.

"Why not do it if it's something we already do, and it's not that drastic?" Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, asked the committee. "Why not put a stake in the ground and let more people know about it and see if more people would take to it?"

Several parents also spoke in support of the idea.

"We got killed last year with a 20 percent tax increase," said Janalee Tobias, a parent who lives in the Jordan District. "I don't think anyone in here can afford another tax increase and if this can stop a tax increase, I would urge you to consider that."

Aleta Taylor, a parent of seven and a South Jordan City Council member, said lawmakers must set an example for local school boards by adopting innovative ideas.

"If we let parents know ahead that this is an option they can plan with their students," Taylor said. "It's a very, very practical way to cut the budget."

Some lawmakers and education officials, however, weren't sure how Buttars' proposal would be any different from what's already available. Since the 1990s, the state has offered Centennial Scholarships of up to $1,000 for students who graduate from high school early.

"If it is a waste of time for seniors or their parents think it's a waste of time then they don't have to do it," said Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent.

Ron Wolff, superintendent of the Morgan County School District, said the vast majority of Morgan High seniors are taking some core classes. Of the school's 170 seniors, he said 160 are taking English, 157 are taking social studies and 119 are taking math.

"The senior year ... is a valuable thing for our students," Wolff said.

Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, wondered if it would take a few years for the state to see any savings. Buttars' projection that the state could save $60 million is based on half of the state's high school seniors choosing to graduate early. But Fowlke and others pointed out that it might take years of planning for students to reach that point.

Also, Buttars is proposing that students who graduate from high school early be allowed to pay the same amount of money to take college classes during their first year of college as they would have paid to take concurrent enrollment, Advanced Placement and distance learning classes in high school.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said it can be more expensive to teach kids college courses in college than in high school, and sending all those students to college early would have a "serious impact" on higher education.

State Superintendent Larry Shumway, however, said, "If students are prepared to graduate at the end of their junior year or whenever they're prepared to graduate, I don't have an objection to [early graduation]."

He said Buttars' idea raises important questions about the effectiveness of 12th grade, which is why he's decided to create a task force to examine the issue over coming months.

"There is a lot of productive work seniors can do and my aim is ensuring that seniors take courses of study that prepare them for the career or higher education pursuits they'll have after high school," Shumway said.

Buttars' proposal is just one part of his 10-part plan to downsize state government in order to deal with the state's budget troubles. Buttars is also proposing making high school busing optional for districts, which he projects could save up to $15 million, and he's proposing consolidating some university programs to save money.

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