The co-sponsor of House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s statewide education-technology expansion said Tuesday backers will look for $50 million out of the gate to build up the wireless capacity in Utah schools so it can handle the demands of putting digital devices in the hands of every student.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he and Lockhart are still eyeing a $300 million investment, but neither he nor Lockhart provided specifics for where the money would come from or over what period of time they would implement their plan.
"This is a large number, and it’s clear we can’t do it all in one year, but it doesn’t mean we can’t commit to having this be the goal," Lockhart, R-Provo, told members of the public education budget committee.
Lockhart said there can be no sacred cows, and lawmakers would have to be willing to look for savings in every program to make such a large investment, but she believes it would be worth the expense.
Gibson called it a "stake in the ground that says ‘Utah wants to go here.’"
He said the expansion of the wireless networks in schools would need to be one of the first steps. The Davis School District, he said, has the needed capacity, while others would require significant upgrades.
"It is a big number," Gibson said of the $300 million request. "[But] I hope you will see the vision of where we’ll be 10 years from now."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the Senate co-chairman of the education budget panel, said he was working on a request for a $50 million investment in education — the amount requested by the Utah Board of Education — but when he heard about Lockhart’s "much bigger and bolder approach, I was thrilled."
Stephenson said he was also pleased to hear Lockhart was looking at basing the program on work done by Project RED, a research institute that studies best practices for technology education.
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, the House co-chairman, said there isn’t much point for the committee to discuss how much Lockhart’s initiative would cost, since lawmakers still don’t know how much they’ll have to spend and how much would go to a big-ticket item like the speaker’s would probably be decided by legislative leadership.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said his colleagues’ top education priorities are paying for the 10,300 new students expected to enter Utah’s schools, at a cost of about $60 million, and increasing per-pupil spending, which costs about $25 million for every percent of increase.
Beyond that, said Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, there are plenty of other demands for what money lawmakers will have to spend.
"I need to hear what she wants to do," said Hillyard. "There is no shortage of lists or requests."
Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, asked why legislators didn’t find out about Lockhart’s plan at meetings of Gov. Gary Herbert’s Education Task Force or legislative interim meetings.
Lockhart had a meeting scheduled with a group of senators Tuesday evening. She hopes to work through some of the details and have a bill drafted by the end of the week. "This is complicated. We need to make sure we get it right," she said.
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