The Salt Lake business community has some big ideas to improve education in Utah.
State-funded optional preschool for at-risk kids.
Statewide optional all-day kindergarten.
Giving the ACT to all students.
And setting goals of 90 percent of sixth-graders and ninth-graders reading and doing math at grade-level.
Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce leaders spent Tuesday discussing the draft proposals which are part of the chamber's statewide Prosperity 2020 movement with the Governor's Education Excellence Commission. In coming months, the chamber will attempt to work with lawmakers to set some of its ideas into motion, said Richard Kendell, a chamber advisor and former Utah Commissioner of Higher Education.
"It's very important to business," said Lane Beattie, chamber president and CEO. "It is our future and if we don't address it now we will lose that future."
The chamber's plan calls for the changes to take place over the next 10 years.
"I think the economy is changing, the work force is changing and we've got to adapt to it," Kendell said. "If we're going to continue to be as strong and prosperous, we've got to be better educated." By 2018, about 66 percent of jobs in Utah will require at least some postsecondary education, according to a recent report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
It's possible, however, that some of the chamber's ideas will face resistance. Some Utahns have opposed the idea of state-funded preschool, saying children should not be taken out of the home too early. And some were already wondering on Tuesday where Utah would find the money to implement the chamber's proposals.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who co-chairs the Education Interim Committee, called a lot of the chamber's ideas "innovative" and said lawmakers are already working on some. For example, the chamber wants all students to take the ACT, and lawmakers passed a bill this past session creating a pilot program under which more than 80 Utah high schools are giving the college admissions exam to all juniors.
Still, Stephenson said, he wonders about the meaningfulness of asking 90 percent of sixth and ninth-graders, as opposed to some other percentage, to perform on grade level by 2020. And he has concerns about the cost of funding preschool.
"The lowest funding per student in public education nationally is in Utah, and now, to add a pre-[kindergarten] component to that is basically to me, adding water to the soup, essentially saying, 'Well, let's do more with less,' " Stephenson said. "We only have so much capacity for taxes, and I think we've exceeded that capacity right now."
"The question is how can we do that in an innovative way that doesn't raise taxes," Stephenson said.
He also said he believes pre-kindergarten education can be offered in a way that doesn't take children out of the home. Now, for example, the state offers an at-home software program for some preschool-aged children.
To improve education, the chamber is also recommending more middle and high school counselors, and a high school graduation rate of at least 90 percent. Utah's current graduation rate is about 88 percent, according to state calculations.
And the chamber wants to see optional all-day kindergarten statewide. The state already offers optional extended-day kindergarten, but that program is not available to all students. Last school year, about 18 percent of kindergartners statewide participated, and about 64 percent of participating kids came from low-income families. Also, without additional funding, the program is set to end after this school year.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said recommendations on expanding access to full-day kindergarten and early childhood education are "important recommendations to listen to." He said the chamber has collaborated with education leaders throughout the process of developing its plan.
"I don't think they are unrealistic in recognizing that [the goals] can be achieved if we'll stick to it over time," Shumway said.
Kim Campbell, a member of the governor's commission and former Utah Education Association president, said implementing more early intervention, early childhood education programs and increasing the number of school counselors would "make a big difference."
A number of the chamber's goals align with early ideas coming out of the Governor's Education Excellence Commission. Commission members are already discussing extending funding for full-day kindergarten, funding universally accessible early childhood education, setting goals of 90 percent proficiency in reading and math in certain grades, and increasing funding for counselors. The commission hopes to roll out its own education recommendations soon.
A separate commission created by Gov. Gary Herbert to streamline government has also recommended the state invest in early learning programs to save money long-term.
Kendell said the chamber hopes to see its plan phased-in over time.
"This is not a one-shot thing," Kendell said. "I think they're being realistic in knowing there are financial challenges facing the state. They're not going to drop all this on the Legislature at one time."
Businesses pushing changes in education
Prosperity 2020, a statewide initiative by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, calls for:
Optional all-day kindergarten
Giving the ACT to all high school juniors
Seeing 90 percent of sixth- and ninth-graders reading and doing math at grade-level
A 90 percent high school graduation rate
More middle and high school counselors