Preschool, tech, basic Utah education funding recommended
A legislative committee is recommending a 2.5 percent boost to basic per pupil spending next school year — despite arguments from some that it won’t be enough to make much of a difference to teachers or classrooms.
After two weeks of hearing requests, the committee voted Thursday on a list of education funding recommendations that included the per pupil spending boost, $61 million to fund enrollment growth and millions of dollars for software and preschool programs, among other things.
That list will now go to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which will craft a final education budget bill to be voted on by the full House and Senate.
The recommendation that basic per pupil spending — known as the weighted pupil unit (WPU) — be increased by 2.5 percent falls just shy of what state education leaders wanted.
The state school board is asking for a 2.7 percent increase. And the Utah Education Association wants a 4 percent increase, saying it’s needed to get schools back on track after cuts during the recession.
A Tribune investigation found that in some districts, all of the 2 percent WPU increase last year went toward increasing health insurance and retirement expenses, over which districts have little to no control.
Still, some lawmakers wanted to see even less put toward the WPU on Thursday.
The WPU, which is now valued at $2,899, doesn’t represent all the money the state spends per student, but unlike other pots of cash, school districts can use it on almost anything.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said he would rather see the money put toward other programs on the list, saying the WPU "is one of our least innovative areas of the state budget."
"We’re not giving innovation by funding the WPU," Urquhart said. "We will give innovation if we fund more items below the WPU."
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, disagreed.
"I have seen across the state innovation at the school district level that we will never be able to replicate here at the state house," Nielson said.
Ultimately, the committee voted to recommend the 2.5 percent increase, with two lawmakers, Urquhart and Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, voting against it. Lifferth was hoping for a 2 percent increase.
For a short time, the committee also discussed taking some of the $62.5 million needed for the WPU increase from Speaker Becky Lockhart’s proposal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on technology for schools, finding money for that elsewhere.
But they quickly backed off that idea after Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, urged the committee to be "realistic" and show support for the proposal. He said trying to take money from the technology proposal could create confusion and potentially "backfire on us."
"Just look at the landscape and see this is going to happen," Last said of the speaker’s proposal.
The recommendation list approved Thursday includes $100 million for the speaker’s proposal, but Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, cautioned that’s just a placeholder, and the actual amount will be outlined in the Executive Appropriations Committee.
The recommendation list also includes, among other things, millions to continue the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program for elementary schools; $5 million to continue and expand UPSTART, an at-home software preschool program; $5 million for HB96 and/or SB42, which would expand other preschool programs; and $10 million for the STEM Action Center, much of which would be spent on continuing use of math software and training for teachers.