Rolly: When Utah sets school priorities, one senator’s vote is biggest
Keyword_here • PAUL ROLLY

By PAUL ROLLY

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: March 7, 2013 05:50PM
Updated: March 7, 2013 10:57PM
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Paul Rolly

If you are going to serve on a legislative committee and want to exert influence, it’s good to be chairman, especially if you are 20-year veteran Sen. Howard Stephenson, and the committee you lead recommends spending priorities for public education.

Stephenson, R-Draper, is co-chairman of the Joint Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee with Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane, and the funding priorities the committee recently adopted are top heavy with Stephenson-backed initiatives that cause chagrin among some in the education community.

The committee is composed of 11 House members and eight Senate members. But unlike other joint appropriations subcommittees, it tallies up the Senate priorities and the House priorities separately, then gives equal weight to each of the chambers. The result is that individual senators, because they are fewer in number, carry more weight when listing priorities than individual House members.

Stephenson says it is the most equitable way to compile priorities because it gives equal treatment to each of the two bodies representing the committee.

And even critics who say that gives Stephenson more power in selecting priorities concede that the process has been transparent.

The reason Stephenson’s own priorities are controversial among educators is that over the years he has been arguably the most vocal critic in the Legislature of the way public schools deliver education to their students, and he has voiced deep distrust in what he calls the “union” influence in how decisions are made.

The recommendation for ongoing funding the subcommittee sends to the Executive Appropriations Committee, the final arbiter of revenue spending, lists as its top three priorities student enrollment growth, an increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU), which is basic per-pupil spending, and educator salary adjustments.

Everyone agrees on those three, which total nearly $100 million.

After that, the priorities are determined by each committee member numbering his or her top priorities. Those numbers are added up and averaged, resulting in a Senate ranking and a House ranking. That is calculated into a combined ranking that determines the final priority recommendations.

The result: The next 10 priorities on the list are projects either sponsored or endorsed by Stephenson. They focus on digital learning tools developed by outside vendors, technical science and mathematics programs, online classes and dual-immersion foreign language curricula.

To be fair to Stephenson, those are education initiatives he has long been passionate about, but educators complain that passion, from someone outside the education community who is holding the purse strings, interferes with priorities that professionals in the system deem the best direction for students.

Stephenson says he is trying to bring education into the 21st century and that his critics are resistant to change.

But critics say his passion and his position of power devalue other legislators’ priorities that may be more in line with the education community.

Those critics say with nearly $40 million prioritized for literacy technologies, science and technology education centers, online class expansion and related causes, important programs like professional development for teachers, at-risk student intervention and early childhood development may be left out.

prolly@sltrib.com