This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
For public school supporters, the end of this year's legislative session started with a roar.
Educators kicked off the final week of debate by gathering in a massive rally at the Utah Capitol that was easily the largest – and loudest – demonstration of the session.
Hours later, lawmakers passed a budget that included sizable increases to education funding, but fell short of what school managers were hoping to see in a year of large budget surpluses.
"To have that [rally] be essentially dismissed was very disappointing," Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
But this year's budget is far from bad news for schools, according to State Superintendent Brad Smith. He said he regretted the ungrateful tone of the education rally, which came after budget negotiations were finalized.
"It reminded me of when my kid was 3 years old and they started crying on Christmas morning because they didn't get one more thing," he said.
Lawmakers increased per-student spending by 4 percent, or roughly $100 million statewide, effectively doubling the 2 and 2.5 percent increases of 2013 and 2014, respectively.
A proposed income tax hike was rejected early in the session, but the state's Republican legislators warmed to adjusting a dormant statewide property tax that creates a funding floor for Utah's poorest school districts. That tax will generate $75 million each year and cost the average family $46.
Smith said the increase in per-student spending, coupled with the property tax adjustment, represents a significant investment in education.
"Some districts are getting 7 or 8 percent, which is an unheard-of increase," he said.
But the sense of disappointment that lingered for some educators has its roots in December, when Gov. Gary Herbert released his budget recommendations.
He called for $500 million in new funding for education, including a 6.25 percent per-student increase, which lifted the hopes of educators that funding would return to where it was before the stock market crash of 2008.
"It really isn't about excessive funding, it's about getting back to pre-recession levels," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "This was the year for us to do that. This was the year for us to really commit to that."
Herbert said that when combined with the property tax increase, the Legislature's budget comes close to the $500 million total for public and higher education the he requested. "I think overall, even though it's not the way I would've done it, it's a good way to do it," he said. Schools will have to wait at least another year for a major investment in school technology. After the failure of last year's $300 million, one-to-one device proposal, Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson tried to run a scaled-down, $75 million plan that was scaled down further to $5 million.
State School Board Chairman David Crandall said the $5 million will lay the groundwork for expanding classroom technology in the state.
"Technology didn't turn out the way we had hoped, but we did get at least some seed money to take that to the next step," Crandall said.
Another $8 million was set aside for a school turnaround program based on school grading that will reward schools for improvement and mandate reforms, including outside consultants and potential school closures, for continued failure.
"We're going to see some increases in the performance of those schools," said bill sponsor and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
New legislation requires high school students to pass a civics test and demonstrate some level of math competency before graduating. But a requirement to learn and speak a second language was defeated.
Excessive student testing was a frequent topic of debate at the Capitol, with lawmakers calling for an end to SAGE, Utah's nascent computer-based assessment.
SAGE testing will continue this spring, but lawmakers approved a bill clarifying a student's right to opt out of statewide assessments and a resolution that will gather policymakers to review the amount of testing administered in Utah schools.
But the perennial debate over how to elect the State School Board continued to divide lawmakers. As of press time, lawmakers settled on a compromise to hold partisan elections in 2016, coupled with a proposed constitutional amendment to let the governor appoint board members. If voters fail to approve the amendment, the partisan elections would be automatically repealed, forcing lawmakers to address the issue again in 2017.