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Utah House speaker seeks massive tech infusion for Utah schools

Published January 31, 2014 1:35 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart is putting the finishing touches on a massive education proposal, aimed at putting learning technology in the hands of each of Utah's more than 600,000 school students.

The price tag on the bill could be enormous, between $200 million and $300 million, according to those familiar with the developing proposal, making it the most ambitious education modernization push in Utah history.

Asked about the $300 million price tag, Lockhart said that is "on the high side, but it's a big number."

The legislation will be sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton. Lockhart said she hopes to officially unveil the proposal next week.

For Lockhart, who has said she will not seek another term in the Legislature, the education initiative could bolster her legacy in the body.

It could also serve as the cornerstone of a potential gubernatorial bid for the speaker, who has not ruled out a run and, in her session-opening remarks Monday, criticized Gov. Gary Herbert for a lack of leadership.

Lockhart — whose husband, Stan Lockhart, is a lobbyist for IM Flash and co-chair of the state Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics board — said her plan goes well beyond just pouring money into gadgetry.

"One thing we have found out through the research that has been done is that you have to have the infrastructure and you have to have the teacher development. You can't just put devices in a kid's hand and say 'Learn,'" Lockhart said. "So a significant part of what we're looking at is those first two steps: Making sure the infrastructure is there and making sure the teacher development happens, but also having the device."

Under the broad parameters of the plan, which was explained by several people familiar with the bill on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss it, the Utah State Office of Education would be assigned the job of certifying any number of education-technology providers.

Schools, districts and charter schools could then pick which program to use.

There would be pieces designed to build out the wireless infrastructure needed to operate the devices and, as Lockhart said, to train teachers on how to best utilize the technology.

The speaker previewed her plans in her comments on the opening day of the session, when she called for a fundamental overhaul of Utah's education system.

"We need nothing less than an education renaissance in Utah, a modernization that embraces the best of our traditional approach and expedites a break with the outdated ways of the past," she said.

"Let's engage the tools of today and intersect with the technology that students are using to learn everything in the world right now," she said. "Let's ensure that every K-12 student has access — and the understanding — of the technological devices to ensure their success int he economy of tomorrow."

She also said she was "deeply concerned" that there wasn't a recognition that training and technology go together.

The cost of the program may be its biggest stumbling block and it remains to be seen how Lockhart proposes to pay for it.

"It would be massive," said one source familiar with the details.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, chairman of the public education budget committee, said he is "thrilled" more members of the Legislature are recognizing the importance of digital learning. But Stephenson did have some concerns about the cost.

"The price tag, to me, seems very ambitious and I'm not sure that if we do all that much in one year we'll have as positive effect as if we scale it over a few years. And I think she's open to that, to scaling it over a few years rather than doing it in one fail swoop," Stephenson said. "We just need to do this carefully because we can flood the schools with devices and not make a significant difference."

Lockhart had apparently kept the development of the plan closely guarded, discussing it for the first time with Republican leaders in the Senate on Thursday morning in their joint leadership meeting.

"We didn't know much about that," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, "but we got some commitments to work together on some of those education issues."

In addition to the technology component, Lockhart has outlined basic changes she would like to see to the education system by redefining roles for each level of the education structure, from the parents, to the state office and the Legislature.

She has provided several drafts of her vision of the responsibilities to education officials, but hasn't finalized her model.