At its next general session, the Legislature will be considering a bold plan that would put a new face on public education in Utah and dramatically alter the relationships between school districts, individual schools and students.
The question being asked now: Will the plan propel individual student achievement or stunt it?
Legislation proposed by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, would give each high school student in Utah an individual education savings account, sort of like a debit card, and that student could use that money any way he or she wanted toward earning a diploma.
The plan would be unique in the United States and, just like initiatives from the Utah Legislature on public employee pension reform and Medicaid reform, could become a model for other states, its supporters boast.
For example, one parent of a Highland High School student contacted me recently to complain that his straight-A student wanted to take an AP European history class that is not offered by Highland, but is offered by Skyline, which is in a different school district. The request to remain a full-time student in the Salt Lake District's Highland High but take that one class in the Granite District's Skyline High was denied, mostly for reasons of state funding of the school districts, although the Skyline administration said the class was full anyway.
Dougall says his legislation would solve the problem for that student.
He said the student would not be tied to one particular school. He or she could take, say, four classes at Highland, and pay Highland out of the student account for those four classes, then take two at Skyline, paying the money to Skyline from the account, then take a class at applied technology school and pay that school out of the account. The student could move between school districts while utilizing his or her schedule and could also use the money for charter schools or online instruction.
The plan would put into the student's account nearly $6,000 a year under the assumption a typical high school class costs a school district about $700. The account would cover up to eight classes per year, with the ability of rolling the money over to the next year if the entire $6,000 was not spent.
Under Dougall's vision, if the student didn't spend all the money in the account during his or her four high school years, that student could use the left-over funds toward college.
Educators say that, conceptually, the plan is intriguing, but myriad details would need to be worked out.
Granite District Superintendent Martin Bates said some students require more resources to educate than others, based on their preparedness and skill levels. So imposing a cookie-cutter system where each student is allotted the same amount individually might not work so cleanly. Also, if a student fails a class, the money is used up for that class, and he or she doesn't get it back, despite getting no credit.
But Dougall says the system has built-in buffers. Twenty-four high school credits are required for graduation, he notes, and his bill pays for 32 credits for the four years.
State Schools Superintendent Larry Shumway worries that for some exceptional students, the 32-class coupon idea might hamper their potential progress. Say an ambitious student wants to take required classes like health and geography online to make room in his or her classroom schedule for the technical college prep classes like higher math and sciences and still be able to take band, or chorus or dance.
Once the 32 coupons are used, the student is done, says Shumway, who worries that for some students, that would stunt their educational growth.
But Dougall again counters that the fact his system would pay for eight more credits than what is required for graduation would take care of the high-achieving student just like it would serve the needs of the low-achieving student.
"Once the system is in place," he said, "the school districts will need to work out certain details, but they have to do that now," he said.
Two weeks ago I wrote that Waterford School was a $3.2 million beneficiary of a last-minute legislative omnibus appropriation bill. It actually was Waterford Institute, which is separate from the school.