Utah schools may get to try a new approach: teaching year-round while mixing online learning with time in class.
The Senate Education Committee has approved SB79, which would provide $275,000 for grants for such pilot programs.
Up to 10 selected schools would have to blend online and classroom learning, extend the school year and teacher pay accordingly; use data to make decisions about instruction; and use competency-based education, in which students move to the next level by showing proficiency rather than just by putting in time.
"We know that when children are born, from the moment they leave the womb they are learning creatures," said bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. "Then they enter kindergarten and we command them to stop that self-directed learning because it's disruptive to the order of the classroom."
Schools could apply to participate, as could parents and students. Up to $75,000 of the money could go toward a consultant to help develop and implement the pilot program.
Several other lawmakers, as well as a representative from the conservative Sutherland Institute, also spoke in support of the bill, which passed 4-1 and now moves to the Senate floor.
"SB79 taps into the power of digital learning, which if done right, can empower children to guide their educations," said Stan Rasmussen with the Sutherland Institute.
But Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, expressed concerns, including the cost of the program. "I'm all for pilots to make sure something works, but it seems like bill after bill, we're just chipping away at the education fund … and I'm concerned about that," Jones said.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, also said the bill, to her, seems unnecessary given that schools can already make such changes without a new, specific program.
Stephenson, responding to the criticism, said he doesn't believe it's the legislature's role to micromanage schools, but sometimes pilots and incentives can lead to great innovations.
The bill would also create an advisory committee of leaders of legislative education committees, including Stephenson, to offer suggestions to the State Office of Education on selection of applicants.