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Gov. Gary Herbert plans to testify before Congress on Tuesday about Utah's plan to better align schools with workforce needs an initiative that could be complicated by budget indecisiveness in Washington, D.C.
Herbert is proposing lawmakers put much of the state's new revenue this year toward schools, particularly a plan recommended by his Education Excellence Commission and Utah's business community. That plan includes items such as expanding early childhood education, dual immersion language programs and giving the ACT to all Utah students, among other things.
It's part of a broader strategy to reach a goal that two-thirds of Utahns hold post-high school degrees or certificates by 2020.
Herbert said he'd like to see the full list of recommendations about 30 requests worth more than $250 million in all gain approval from lawmakers this session.
But questions about federal funding remain. Failing to reach agreement on spending cuts in January, federal leaders have delayed the discussion until early March. If the feds can't agree by then, automatic federal spending cuts could kick in across the country, leaving Utah schools with fewer dollars than expected.
"The only cloud on the horizon is what's happening or not happening in Washington, D.C., and that negative ripple effect, whether it be sequestration or tax rates or impact on the national economy, has really caused us, everybody, to take pause and say wait a minute," Herbert said Monday. "We need to see what's going to happen there before we absolutely know what's going to happen in Utah, so it's frustrating for us."
He even referred to the possibility of a special session in Utah after the regular legislative session, though he said, "Whether we need to have that or not I think remains to be seen."
Senate budget Chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said Monday he doubts lawmakers would want to hold money back from education even if the feds have not yet agreed on spending cuts by the end of the session.
Herbert said he'll also testify before Congress on Tuesday that Utah could do with less federal money if some of the strings attached to it were removed, giving the state more flexibility.
"There's no reason we can't have good appropriate outcomes even though we have less money," Herbert said.
As part of his plan for next school year, Herbert wants to put $96 million toward paying for an additional 13,254 students expected in Utah classrooms; increase per pupil spending by more than 1 percent; increase compensation in higher education by 1 percent; expand an elementary arts program; and expand offerings at Utah College of Applied Technology campuses.
"Inextricably connected to economic expansion is education, so we cannot have long term sustained economic growth if we don't have a skilled labor force," Herbert said.
He said he's "not proud" that Utah is last in the nation for per pupil spending but the state has unique challenges, such as large families. Herbert said the best way to increase education spending even further is by growing the economy.
He said he hopes Utah will be an example for the rest of the country on how to align schools and workforce needs. Utah is already making good progress, he said, pointing to the state's higher than average achievement on the ACT and Advanced Placement tests.
Utah Education Association (UEA) President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, who sits on the Governor's Education Excellence Committee, called the long-term goals admirable on Monday but said funding must also be addressed.
"I support the goals of the commission, but until we have a long-term plan for adequately funding public education … they will be difficult to achieve without adequate resources," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Monday to approve a resolution, SCR5, supporting the goal that two-thirds of Utahns hold post-secondary degrees or certificates by 2020. But they approved it only after some lawmakers expressed frustration over the lack of a complete funding vision to accompany it.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Monday he'd like to see more discussion after the session to come up with plans about how to reach those goals.
The governor's remarks came about a week after leaders of the state's Democratic Party criticized him for not taking a strong lead on plans to improve education.