Utah lawmakers want $128M more in per-student funding. Would that knock Utah out of last place nationally?

Utah lawmakers have proposed increasing education spending per student by a total of $128 million this year — which matches what the governor requested when he listed it as his top funding priority.

It’s still a small enough bump, at about 4 percent, that it likely will not take the state out of last place in the nation for per-pupil funding, a spot it has secured every year for at least the last decade. But it’s a significantly larger increase than either of the last two years, which each saw increases of about $90 million.

“It’s a vote of confidence for public education,” said Utah Board of Education Chairman Mark Huntsman.

The budget recommendation was finalized Tuesday by the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee as part of a list of requests totaling more than $300 million in ongoing funding and $100 million in one-time allocations. The student spending increase was the single biggest item.

Much of the focus for other funding was on increasing safety.

After one of the most horrific school shootings in the nation’s history in Florida last year, Utah’s legislators and governor spent much of the summer examining new models for improving the structure of schools to stop would-be shooters. That included models to add steel curtains and new security cameras.

The budget sets aside $67 million in one-time funding that would go to schools to do safety assessments, including a focus on drills and door locks.

“That’s a big amount, but it’s small to what we may end up needing in that area,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, co-chairman of the appropriations subcommittee.

There is also $32 million ongoing for a bill that aims to improve security by focusing on mental health. Proposed by Republican Rep. Steve Eliason, also co-chairman, HB373 would give districts money to hire more counselors and therapists. It’s the largest allocation for any piece of legislation in the education budget.

Another $1.2 million would go to supporting SafeUT, an app in which students can anonymously chat with crisis counselors.

The subcommittee “listened well” to what was needed, Huntsman added.

Final budget decisions on these recommendations will be made by the Executive Appropriations Committee.

The education priorities list also includes:

• $35.7 million for enrollment growth

The state added more than 7,500 public K-12 children in 2018 for a total of 659,909. Colleges here also saw a boom with a 2.17 percent increase statewide last year, with almost 184,000 students total.

“Now, when this growth comes, we can cover it,” Hillyard said.

Class sizes throughout Utah continue to grow, and this money can go toward adding more teachers and potentially capping students per room.

$1.5 million for teacher supplies

This is down from $5 million in 2017. But, in addition to this allocation, the “teacher and student success account” will also get $35 million.

That’s part of a lingering obligation from the compromise funding plan lawmakers put in place after negotiating with the supporters of an Our Schools Now ballot initiative, who initially wanted to boost education funding by $700 million.

The success account funding can go toward hiring more teachers or buying more supplies. And it’s added to $67 million allocated last year in the ongoing commitment.

The ballot initiative was intended to slow the flow of instructors leaving the classroom, with a dire teacher shortage in the state and strikes nationwide. Hillyard said: “I certainly hope that educators realize that we see them as very, very vital employees.”

• $7 million in computer science funding

Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, has proposed a bill that would ask all schools to offer at least one elective course in computer science by 2022. This allocation could go toward hiring teachers trained on the subject.

The measure passed unanimously in committee Tuesday before appropriations announced it would set aside $7 million. There are also informal agreements from several Utah technology companies that are willing to contribute an additional $5 million.

The idea is to train students in coding to get jobs in Utah.

“We think this is something that can really help our economy flourish for years to come,” said Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

• $10 million for at-risk students

This money is meant to assist students who might be at risk of failing or dropping out of school. It’s unclear what that would look like, but would most likely include more academic advisors or after-school programs. The governor had asked for $15 million for the concept.

“We’re trying to do what’s right for the children of Utah,” said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.