Senate passes slew of school technology bills
Education • Amid debate about the role of lawmakers in education, Senate passes $15M in software, tech bills.
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The Utah Senate passed more than $15 million worth of school technology-related bills on Monday, despite concerns that some of them are geared toward specific vendors and the money might be better spent on other needs.

Senators unanimously passed SB279, a $5 million bill to purchase and implement a web-based math program for kids in grades K-6. They passed SB209, a $3 million bill expanding a State Office of Education program to give schools more tablet computers for students. They also passed SB257, a $70,000 bill to buy educator evaluation software, by a vote of 18-8; SB284, a $2.4 million bill to expand a smart schools technology program with a unanimous vote; and SB260, a $4.7 million bill to expand a software literacy program in schools, by 19-8.

With the exception of SB260, most passed with little debate despite opposition in recent weeks. Critics have complained that some of those bills are geared toward rewarding specific vendors and would take money from strapped schools, which could use the cash for other purposes. Some lawmakers have also criticized what they see as an overflow of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math-related) bills seeking funding this session.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-Saint George, sponsor of SB260 and SB279, on Monday called the term "vendor" "pejorative," saying companies such as those who might win contracts to carry out the bills have developed helpful programs.

Urquhart said during debate over SB260 that it's time the state tried something new, noting that despite years of spending up to $30 million on a different K-3 reading program, students have not improved their reading skills. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also voiced support for the bill, saying schools that have been using it have seen tremendous gains in short periods of time.

"Technology is not the future of education, it's the current best practice in education," Urquhart said. "Instead of the herd moving on, each student moves on individually."

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, however, said if reading scores haven't improved because of that K-3 program, it's likely because of larger class sizes, increasingly diverse student bodies and financially challenged schools.

She said she was also concerned about the literacy program's price tag given the scarcity of funds for schools, which she said should be making decisions about how to best educate kids.

"I would vote to allow the experts to do their job instead of having the Legislature do their job," Jones said.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, also voted against SB260, noting "there's so many of these different programs" that he'd like to see which ones are truly priorities. He said the bill was originally labeled as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) bill, among many others labeled the same way.

"The trouble you really have in public education is once you fund growth and WPU (per pupil spending) there ain't much left," Hillyard said.

All five bills now move to the House.