House panel OKs boost for math and science education
Education • Proposed $15 million infusion for targeted education on its way to the House.
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A bill pushed by businesses to focus on math and science education among elementary school students passed a House committee unanimously Monday, just days after it had sputtered amid worries over its $15 million price tag.

Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, told the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee that HB139 is a necessary measure to keep Utah competitive with a growing workforce reliant on highly skilled workers with strong backgrounds in math, science and technology.

"Companies, if they can't get a qualified workforce, will start to look elsewhere. It's starting to happen in our state," Peterson said. "The key to our economy is business and industry and business and industry is here at the table helping support this bill and they want to be a partner."

The measure would give $5 million to the State Office of Education to be dispersed to school districts and charters to spend on grants related to science, technology, engineering and math — often referred to as STEM. Another $10 million would flow to Gov. Gary Herbert's Office of Economic Development to form the STEM Action Center. A board comprised of business and education leaders would then target schools with ways to improve STEM education.

Peterson's proposal ran into early problems when Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, worried the bill would be found unconstitutional because it would subvert the State Office of Education's authority on spending for curriculum.

But Angie Stallings, the legislative lawyer who drafted the measure and studied it for constitutional concerns, said it didn't merit a note suggesting it would run into those issues — though she said there isn't a lot of case law on the matter either.

Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy, said he has opposed the measure since its inception, but changed his mind Monday after hearing testimony from Peterson about his son's struggle with learning math, going from one set of principles in junior high to a new template in high school.

Greenwood said he thought the proposal might lead to a more uniform approach to identifying students with aptitude in STEM to funnel them through school into high-paying technology jobs in the state.

"It's amazing how much money is out there in the state of Utah," Greenwood said.

The bill has been a priority of Herbert and one of its chief drivers has been Stan Lockhart, the private sector chair of the governor's STEM education initiative and husband of House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

There were worries about the funding going to the governor's economic development office instead of the state board — though fears about the money coming from the education fund were allayed when Peterson said the money to fund the program would come out of the general fund.

The bill stalled in committee last week after two hours of debate.

Business leaders again testified in support of the measure — with only Davis County School Board Member Peter Cannon speaking against the proposal Monday.

Cannon said he'd like to see business leaders approaching local school boards instead of partnering through state-level education initiatives.

The bill now moves to the House floor.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero