A plan to improve science, technology, engineering and math education stalled in committee Wednesday amid concerns about its $15 million price tag an amount some thought might be better spent on reducing class sizes, increasing per pupil spending or bolstering existing programs.
The bill, HB139, would have given the State Office of Education $5 million to spend on grants for school districts and charters on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). And it would have sent $10 million to the Governor's Office of Economic Development to create a STEM Action Center, where a board composed of business and education leaders would work together to find and implement strategies to improve STEM education in schools.
Bill sponsor Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, said the bill could help more Utah students become proficient in math and science and be ready for college in those areas, in order to fill workforce demand.
"If we are to remain competitive, if we are to develop the kind of workforce we need in the state of Utah, this is going to be part of the solution," Peterson said.
Stan Lockhart, private sector chair of the governor's STEM education initiative and husband of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, said he and others have spent months working on the proposal. The bill is also one of Gov. Gary Herbert's education priorities this year, said Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
Richard Nelson, head of the Utah Technology Council, said many Utah companies are in "desperate need of talent," and it's imperative the state improve its pipeline of people qualified to work in STEM jobs through the program.
The bill, however, met with a number of questions in the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee on Wednesday. After two hours of debate, the committee voted to hang onto the bill, meaning it could conceivably come back this session if Peterson can sway more lawmakers to his side, or it could languish and die.
On Wednesday, some wondered why the money would go mostly to the Governor's Office of Economic Development rather than the State Office of Education.
"If we want to improve education it seems like education experts, math experts … would come from the State Office of Education rather an a development office," Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said.
Lockhart said the idea was to help bring together different groups of people inside and outside of education. "We have no intention of taking over the role of public education in this state," he said. "We view ourselves as a resource, as a kind of quick strike force into the schools to be helpful."
Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Holladay, also wondered whether the money would be better put toward issues like class size or per pupil spending.
"It seems like we've been talking for years about coming to a crisis where we aren't going to be able to fill the jobs that need to be filled," Hemingway said, "and yet we've kind of starved our public schools."
Kory Holdaway with the Utah Education Association said the UEA supports the bill, but increasing per pupil spending by 2 percent should be the priority this year. Holdaway said the UEA appreciates that the $15 million would come from the state's general fund and not the education fund, but "at the end of the day, a tax dollar is a tax dollar."
A number of other speakers and lawmakers said Wednesday they supported the idea, but still had questions about it.
"The concepts behind this are exciting and important," said Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, "all that being said, the devil is in the details."