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A coalition of Utah Democratic lawmakers announced Tuesday that they are working on up to a dozen pieces of legislation aimed at improving Utah schools.
"It's long overdue," said Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, of the lawmakers' Best Schools Initiative, announced at Foxboro Elementary in North Salt Lake. "Our state is focusing on being No. 1 in so many different areas. Why not focus on being No. 1 in education?"
The 13 lawmakers were short on details Monday about the content of the bills, saying they plan to release more information in coming weeks. But they said they hope to focus on better funding for education, attracting and retaining quality teachers, smaller class sizes and strong curriculum.
They said changes are needed, citing an Education Week report released in January that ranked Utah 30th in the nation for K-12 achievement. Utah also has the lowest base per pupil funding in the nation.
The lawmakers also said they hope to combat some of the rhetoric and proposed legislation that they believe could damage public education, such as a bill that's been proposed by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, that would create tuition tax credits to help students attend private schools.
"Public education is under assault in Utah," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. "When we see vouchers coming back again, when we see attempts in all kinds of ways to privatize public education ... it's time for us to stand up and say, 'That's enough.' Utahns love their neighborhood schools."
Stephenson said Tuesday, after the Democrats' announcement, his tuition tax credit proposal is not the same thing as vouchers and could be a way to specifically address the needs of students who score lowest on state tests.
However, he said he's eager to see and consider the Democrats' plan.
"Even though we haven't seen the proposal and its elements, I believe the Legislature should take seriously any proposals to improve education, and as chair of the [education] interim committee I want to make sure that we consider all solid improvements to education, even the proposal for $50 million of funding increases," Stephenson said, referring to a proposal discussed by Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, at the Democrats' press conference Monday.
McAdams said he is working on a bill that would put about an additional $50 million a year in new revenue into education. He said his proposal does not include a tax increase but declined to give further details about it, saying he'll wait until after the redistricting process ends to release more.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, spoke about doing a better job of attracting and keeping good teachers by improving compensation, giving them more resources, eliminating poorly performing teachers and providing incentives, which Morgan said could include merit or performance pay bonuses. And Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, talked about the importance of smaller class sizes, additional teacher aides and support for teachers.
The initiative is the latest in a series of plans, many of which somewhat overlap, proposed by a number of groups in hopes of improving education. The state school board has been working from a vision/mission statement they created for Utah public schools called Promises to Keep. Utah business leaders worked with leaders and groups across the state to launch an initiative called Prosperity 2020 earlier this year. And the Governor's Education Excellence Commission, which consists of education and political leaders, began releasing recommendations last year.
Morgan, however, said Tuesday the Democrats' plan is separate from the others.
"We've decided that it's important for us since we are on Capitol Hill, we're in a position to vote on policy and determine funding, we felt like it was our responsibility to put together a coalition to do this," Morgan said. "We think that it's key that there be a plan on Capitol Hill."