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Utah lawmakers weigh STEM craze against basic school needs

Published March 11, 2013 11:05 am

Lawmakers weigh "STEM" craze against basic school needs.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As always, money for education is tight this year at the Legislature — except, potentially, when it comes to these four letters: STEM.

STEM — science, technology, engineering and math education — became a craze this session, with lawmakers rushing to lash their projects to the popular initiative, aimed at getting Utah graduates trained and certified in fields in high demand.

Critics worried that STEM programs were muscling out the traditional school budget and argued bills for companies pitching specific technology were getting special attention. Advocates argued STEM programs were crucial for Utah to remain economically competitive.

"STEM has taken wings in our Legislature," House budget chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, chided his colleagues at one point. "You guys are very enterprising ... when you hear a buzzword you think someone is going to take to. You don't know how many different line items have the word 'STEM' attached to it."

As the session draws to a close, however, it appears the furor is wearing off and lawmakers may be whittling STEM funding to some of its key components — $5 million for a so-called STEM Center and $5 million for a STEM board inside the Governors Office of Economic Development, where business and education leaders would work to foster science and technology education.

"We tried to figure out what was really STEM," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, "and what was something that was nice to have and wasn't really STEM."

'The cool jobs' • HB139, the bill creating the STEM center, is one of the governor's top priorities and has broad support, including from the Utah Education Association and Utah PTA.

"If we're going to give our children and our youth the skills to be competitive in the global economy," said sponsor Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, "we've got to make sure that they have math and science backgrounds."

Many high-tech jobs in Utah are already going unfilled because the state doesn't produce enough qualified professionals to take them, said Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council.

"We're making some progress, but we need to make a quantum leap to get the attention of our very young students … to get them to realize that, 'We need the cool jobs, the high-paying jobs, the jobs that are literally great opportunities,' " Nelson said.

He called the STEM Action Center a "smart investment," in which those in the governor's office would join a network of states sharing best practices.

High price tags • Many of the other STEM-related bills have substantial price tags. Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, wants $5 million for SB279 to purchase and implement a web-based math program for kids in grades K-6.

Urquhart is also running SB260, which would continue a software-based literacy program at a cost of $4.7 million. Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, is looking for $3 million to fund tablet computers for students with SB209.

And Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, is also seeking $3 million in SB284 to expand the Smart School Technology Program, already in three Utah schools. Under that program, the state contracts with a vendor to supply iPads, training and high-tech upgrades to schools.

These additional bills have drawn some skepticism.

"We're scratching our heads about all the STEM bills that have magically appeared," said Kory Holdaway with the UEA. "We're very concerned we're diluting the funding for basic services at the expense of funding vendor bills."

Lawmakers appear to be planning to increase basic per-pupil spending by 2 percent, and to fully fund enrollment growth this session. The state's overall education budget is more than $3 billion; it costs about $25 million to increase basic per-pupil funding, known as the weighted pupil unit, by 1 percent.

But some programs cut during the recession, including funding for teacher training days and programs for at-risk students, have yet to be restored.

Gainell Rogers, president of the Utah PTA, said she'd like to see the money proposed for these other STEM bills put toward enrollment growth.

"Several of those are definite bills that would provide different vendors pretty decent business," Rogers said. "If we had all the money in the world, we would love to see everything funded for education, all the technology, all the different programs, but we don't have that, so let's start with the basics."

'Fund success' • But the lawmakers behind some of those bills say Utah schools need bold changes to succeed.

"We can't just keep going back and going after the same things we went after 10 to 15 years ago," Stevenson said.

Urquhart said an early grades software literacy program has proven successful, and it's time to try a similar approach with math, through one of his bills.

"What I hear is people saying we need to fund the same things that have created and perpetuated the problems we have in math," Urquhart said. "The point shouldn't be to fund a system. The point should be to fund success."

Urquhart and Stevenson said their bills are not written with specific companies in mind and would be subject to the state's normal bidding process.

The governor, who has been a strong supporter of STEM education, agreed.

"We need to be careful about vendor bills," Herbert said. "I don't support drafting legislation that says, in effect, 'This is going to be who the vendor will be,' without having an open and broad [request for proposals] process. That being said, I don't want that to be confused with our STEM education, which is a need to, in fact, raise the bar when it comes to preparing our young people."

Still, some feel efforts this session have been scattershot.

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said he'd like to see the board created under the STEM Action Center bill create an overall plan, rather than passing multiple STEM bills this year.

"It's so nebulous right now," Last said, "that a lot of people, including me, are somewhat frustrated by it."