Amid this economic downturn, a mountain of education money -- $4.35 billion -- is up for grabs, and Utah leaders hope to win some of it for state schools.
The question is whether Utah will be eligible for the so-called Race to the Top money, which requires states to prove they're leading the way in adopting President Barack Obama's school reforms. And if Utah is not as qualified as some other states, will leaders here be willing to change laws and policies to fit what the feds want in order to compete for it?
Although many say Utah will have a good shot at the money, some state education leaders are wary about some of the requested reforms, such as those having to do with charter schools and teacher evaluations.
Christine Kearl, who will be future Gov. Gary Herbert's education director, believes the governor's office will encourage the Utah State Office of Education to apply.
"It comes at a critical time and would be huge for Utah schools," Kearl said. "It comes with a lot of strings but a great deal of money." The governor, state superintendent and state school board chairwoman all would have to sign the application, according to requirements now in draft form. She said it might be a good chance for Utah to take on some of the reforms the money encourages.
State officials agree that Utah is already, in many cases, moving toward the goals outlined.
For example, Utah already has signed on as one of 49 states and territories working to develop national academic standards in math and language arts. Utah already has a data system that tracks individual students over time. And the state already has an extended-day kindergarten program and a pilot program that rewards teachers for student progress as measured by test results.
"We have all of these things already in place that show we are forward thinking and trying to accomplish great things for Utah," said Debra Roberts, State Board of Education chair. Roberts said she's in favor of applying for the money. "I think they will look favorably on Utah."
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said the money certainly could benefit Utah schools, but he said state officials still are reviewing the requirements to make sure it's something for which Utah should strive. State leaders must make sure they're willing to move in the direction Obama wants. Fierce competition for the money is expected, and not all states will win it.
"It's not just about getting the money, it's about ensuring we can spend the money on Utah priorities that will benefit Utah children, teachers and families in the long run," Shumway said.
States can apply for a first round of the awards in the fall and a second round next summer. That, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, will give states plenty of time to "change laws where necessary."
Although Utah is, in many ways, on track to be a serious competitor for the grants, a few of Obama's reforms have some state leaders and educators feeling a bit nervous.
For example, Obama wants to see more high-quality charter schools, and states that have laws capping the growth of charter schools might be at a disadvantage when applying for the money. Utah doesn't exactly have a cap on charter-school growth, but the state does limit how many additional students can enroll each year. Charter schools are public schools created by groups of parents, teachers or community leaders.
Justin Hamilton, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman, declined to say whether that might hurt Utah when being judged against other states.
Roberts said charter school growth needs to happen carefully.
"In my mind, we really can't grow any faster than we're growing with charters, fundingwise," Roberts said. "It would actually hurt the charters in place to grow the charters any faster than we're growing them."
Also, some educators are wary of criteria that encourage states to link teacher and principal evaluations to student academic growth as measured by standardized test scores.
Kim Campbell, Utah Education Association (UEA) president, said teachers should be evaluated on a broad array criteria, which can include but shouldn't be limited to how students perform on tests.
"If it's a race to the top, it ought to be a race to the top in the things that count," Campbell said. "If it only focuses on test scores it will drive the whole system away from the rich kind of engaging curriculum we know helps student achievement."
As part of any application for the money, states must show they worked with stakeholders, including teachers unions, to achieve support for reforms. Campbell said she's pleased Duncan and Obama included that type of collaboration in the draft requirements.
"When you dangle that much money, hopefully people will come together and have the conversation about what can we do to help students achieve," Campbell said. "We're hoping to be involved in and help shape that conversation."
Andrea Rorrer, director of the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah, said it's a collaboration that makes sense.
"This has not been polarizing. It has not created that dichotomy between teachers unions and school boards," Rorrer said. "Utah is probably well situated in many respects to be eligible for and competitive for ... this money."
At this point, however, many, including the UEA, are waiting until more of the details are ironed out and more discussions take place before getting too excited about it. They don't want to see the state jump into another commitment like former President George Bush's education reform law, No Child Left Behind, without knowing all the facts.
Deb Schofield, a second-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Layton, said she's cautiously intrigued.
"If there is funding being offered we should investigate," Schofield said. "Anything free always has string attached, it seems like, but sometimes you can live with those strings."