Questions abound about how to pay for Speaker's massive education push
House Speaker Becky Lockhart is pitching an aggressive expansion of digital learning, but some in the Legislature and the education community are unsure about the massive price tag for her proposal and how to make the arithmetic add up.
Lockhart envisions spending between $200 million and $300 million to dramatically expand technological learning in schools, including buying tens of thousands of devices, training teachers on using technology in their lesson plans and building the wireless networks needed to support the tools.
To pay for the project, Lockhart acknowledges she would have to look at possible reductions to every other area of state government.
"Everything is on the table. There are no sacred cows. This is a transformational idea and we have to have a serious discussion about it," the speaker said.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said she's happy to hear talk of spending money on education, but pouring money into technology is not the best use of the funds.
Currently, Utah spends nearly 10 percent less per pupil than it did before the recession, she said. Teachers haven't received a cost-of-living adjustment or raise in years, and teacher training has fallen behind.
"I think we need to have a real serious look at getting back to pre-recession levels before we talk about having a massive $300 million investment in technology," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "While it sounds wonderful, we have big issues we need to tackle in a significant way."
Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, who is the co-chair of the education budget committee, said he's not sure where $200 million or more will come from.
"I guess [Lockhart's] been working on it and I think she's identified some sources of revenue, but I don't know what they are," he said. "We already had a $50 million request from the State Office of Education [for technology] and there was quite a bit of concern about how we might be able to do that, so if we are to go significantly up from there, I'm not sure where it would come from."
David Crandall, acting chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said he is waiting to hear more details of Lockhart's plan, but "the numbers I'm hearing thrown around are pretty aggressive."
The board asked for $50 million to expand technology education, but it was just one of the priorities with paying for new students attending school next year being a top priority and an increase in the per-pupil spending second. So Crandall said he wants to see how the money would be spread around.
"It's always a concern," said Crandall. "Eventually you run out of money so you run out of what you can fund. So if you're funding things at the top of the list, things are going to fall off the bottom."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the other co-chair of the education budget committee, said the funding level is "ambitious" and may be more than schools can handle. Sometimes, he said, it is better to phase in technology programs over time.
"And I think [Lockhart's] open to that, to scaling it over a few years rather than doing it in one fell swoop," Stephenson said. "We just need to do this carefully because we can flood the schools with devices and not make a significant difference."
Lockhart said Friday that she envisions the program being implemented over 18 months to two years, but it's unfair to today's students to make them wait. "Let's get it done now if we can," she said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he doesn't know a lot of details about Lockhart's plan, but acknowledged the cost is an issue.
The Legislature has a total of about $338 million extra revenue to spend this year.
"Obviously we would have some questions about, are we going to use up all the money on this initiative? What about growth and what about [per pupil spending]?" he asked. "So those are questions that will need to be asked along the process."
"Not to mention things like state prisons and transportation," added Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, vice-chairman of the budget committee.
In his budget proposal in December, Gov. Gary Herbert recommended a significant amount of new money going to education, but spread it across a variety of programs. He proposed $61.6 million to increase the per-pupil spending by about $100 each, $64 million to cover more than 10,000 new students entering public schools next year, and $7.5 million for all-day kindergarten programs.
Funding Lockhart's education technology effort, plus the governor's education programs, not to mention other demands on state government such as employee raises, prison-population growth, increased costs for health care and other needs would require deep cuts to other programs around the state.
In a statement Friday, the governor's office touted his own record on expanding digital education.
"The governor has been a strong proponent of enhancing the technology available to teachers and students since he convened his Education Excellence Commission over four years ago," his office said. "The governor appreciates the support of legislative leadership for this important initiative. He looks forward to working with the Senate and House to find the right balance for funding competing priorities with limited taxpayer dollars."
Lockhart said she plans to publicly release her education plan by the end of next week, although The Tribune first reported the broad contours of it Thursday. She said she expects it to be less than $300 million, but the price tag will be significant.
"We've always felt and always demonstrated that education is our No. 1 priority and this will give us an opportunity to show that," she said.
House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said if the Legislature wants to invest in something "transformational" for education, it's going to require a serious look at the budget.
And Hughes said it is wrong for critics to suggest that Lockhart is looking to bolster her legacy before she leaves the Legislature at the end of the year, or that she is burnishing her credentials for a potential run for the governor's office Â even a possible challenge to Herbert in 2016.
"Is it any surprise that someone who has spent 16 years in service and the last four as speaker wants to have a legacy of something that is transformational?" he said. "I know they want to point to ulterior motives, but I think that's unfair."