The Great Recession made the heady days of million-dollar state revenue surpluses seem a long time ago in a place far, far away. But here we are in Utah in 2013 with $242 million more than anticipated in the state's education fund.
While state law requires that half the surplus be squirreled away in the Rainy Day Fund, $120 million should be enough to do some good for schools, particularly those recently given F or D grades in the Legislature's new grading system. Such schools must be struggling, if the grading criteria work as promised to identify schools that need help.
The "extra" money is considered a "one-time" surplus and must be spent on programs, equipment or other capital expenditures that are not on-going. Sadly, it cannot be used to bolster wages for teachers who volunteer to work in at-risk schools, but with some good analysis and input from educators, legislators should be able to put the money where it can have long-term positive effects.
Here are some ideas from the folks in the school trenches who understand best the needs of schools:
Kory Holdaway, director of government relations for the Utah Education Association, rightly pointed out that the Legislature is requiring schools to implement teacher-evaluation programs, computer adaptive testing and common core requirements without allocating any money for teacher training.
When teachers were surveyed several years ago about what would entice them to stay in schools (Utah has one of the highest turnover rates among new teachers), one of their priorities was better training. Training to help them better implement new programs would be a good investment.
Investments in technology, including computer education and new computer equipment, could help teachers and students. Utah's colleges and universities have critical remodeling and repair projects that have remained unfunded for years.
But the money should be directed primarily at schools the Legislature has already pointed out as being especially needy. Many of the public schools that received low grades a few weeks ago have many students who are at risk academically because their families don't have the advantages of middle-income white families. Computer programs, teacher training and equipment purchases should go first to those schools to meet critical needs identified by the educators in those schools.
Legislators have taken the first step by singling out needy schools; now they should use all available money to meet those needs.