Utah educators pleased with guv's education recommendations
Budget • Herbert wants to see $111M more for schools.
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Teachers could get raises, schools could get more money for new students and students could find themselves taking new types of tests if Gov. Gary Herbert gets his way.

Herbert unveiled his budget recommendations Monday, saying he'd like to see lawmakers spend an additional $111 million on public schools next school year. That would amount to more than one-fourth of the projected $400 million in additional revenue the state is expecting.

In all, he's recommending $3.6 billion for schools next year, a figure equal to about 28 percent of the total state budget.

"We are a state that does believe in public education," Herbert said Monday at Bountiful High, where he spoke with reporters and students. "We have our own unique challenges with larger families, but we spend a lot of the money we generate here and put it back into public education."

State Superintendent Larry Shumway said Monday his office was still analyzing the details of the proposal, but education leaders are generally pleased.

"This will represent a turn of the corner in Utah public education from the last several years of decreasing resources to getting us back on the track of creating opportunities for districts to improve the quality of their services," Shumway said.

Not everyone, however, is happy with the recommendations, with the Utah Democratic party calling it "a slap in the face" partly because it doesn't recommend enough of an increase to education. Utah has the lowest base per pupil spending in the nation.

"This is a tired, uninspired Republican half-commitment to the children of Utah, " said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, in a statement.

Herbert, however, noted that many of his proposals are aimed at making progress toward the state's goal of having 66 percent of adults with postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020. It's necessary that many adults get postsecondary education to keep Utah's economy strong, he said.

Herbert specifically wants to see lawmakers spend $41 million to pay for nearly 12,500 new students expected in Utah schools next year. In recent years, annual enrollment growth has not always been fully funded, leaving schools to fill in the gaps by making cuts, raising class sizes, increasing taxes or dipping into reserves.

Herbert is also recommending giving teachers raises by increasing base per pupil spending, known as the weighted pupil unit (WPU), by 1 percent or about $21.5 million, though that money would ultimately go to school districts, which would make the final decision and use that money for a number of costs.

He also wants to see $10 million go toward continuing optional extended-day kindergarten and using technology to help young children. He wants to see lawmakers spend $12 million to implement computer-adaptive testing for students, which are tests that change in difficulty as students take them, helping teachers to better pinpoint students strengths and weaknesses. And he wants $2.2 million put toward giving more college readiness tests, such as the ACT; $2 million toward helping charter schools with start-up costs, replacing federal money Utah no longer receives; and $10 million toward classroom supplies.

They're recommendations that largely line up with the wishes of a group of Utah business leaders, who made their own pitch for improving school funding Thursday, said Mark Bouchard, chair of the group's Prosperity 2020 education initiative.

The recommendations are also in line with most of what the state school board is requesting — minus a couple items. Schools, for example, lost about $8 million for programs for at-risk kids to budget cuts last year, and the governor's recommendations don't include restoring that money. The recommendations also don't include restoring $5 million to a program that helped school districts pay to send students to Utah College of Applied Technology campuses during the day.

But on the whole, educators seem pleased with the recommendations.

Utah Education Association president Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said Monday she was encouraged to see recommendations to increase the WPU and fund early intervention programs such as optional extended-day kindergarten.

"We see this budget as a positive sign," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.

Bountiful High financial literacy and psychology teacher Jaclyn Stegen, who attended Herbert's presentation Monday, said it would be nice for teachers to get more pay, and she also hopes to see computer-adaptive tests and other technology for students implemented.

"I like the sound of it," Stegen said of Herbert's overall recommendations. "Anytime you hear somebody say something about more money for education, I'm all about that."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker