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Since school budgets were slashed during the Great Recession, education leaders have clamored for funding to provide workplace training for teachers.

Some lawmakers appear ready to answer that call. Legislators signaled their intent Wednesday to help school districts with training funding.

Members of the Education Interim Committee voted to draft a bill that would set aside money for a professional development grant program. Grants would be used at the district level to provide ongoing training for educators, including peer mentoring or instruction on analyzing data from the state's new computer-based SAGE testing system.

"We're expecting more and more of teachers — especially with these new assessments," said Cottonwood Heights Democratic Rep. Marie Poulson. "They're not getting the proper education to be able to respond to it."

While committee members voted unanimously to draft the legislation, they debated whether training funds should be specifically earmarked in the state education budget or rolled into the weighted pupil unit (WPU) formula, which pays for schools on a per-student basis and can be used at the discretion of local administrators.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, suggested that the WPU gives more flexibility to individual schools to address unique local priorities.

"There's value in simply funding [per-student spending] generally and letting the local district handle professional development from that," Snow said.

Including training funds in the weighted pupil unit would give lawmakers political cover because they then could point to an unusual boost in per-pupil spending, a budget area where Utah has long ranked at the bottom of the nation. Training funding has not typically been included in the WPU in the past.

State education managers said they would prefer to see professional development funding set aside as a separate budget item, as it was until 2009, when it was cut to negligible levels.

Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said keeping professional development funds separate from per-student funding would make it easier to see what effect teacher training has on student learning.

"I would prefer there to be a specific [budget] line," Smith said. "I think you're going to get more measurable outcomes that we can track."

Deputy Superintendent Sydnee Dickson agreed. It is difficult to untangle specific programs from the web of per-student spending, she said. "Having a below-the-line item is a way for us to really measure that data and make sure it's really targeted," Dickson said.

Historically, professional development was conducted outside of the regular school calendar, with teachers compensated for their time. But as funding dried up, Dickson said, some training programs were suspended while others were moved into the school year at the expense of classroom time.

"We did see them losing instructional days to make up for critical days to study student data," Dickson said. "It was days. It was people. It was programs."

Hurricane Republican Rep. Brad Last suggested drafting a committee bill for the grant program. But he also proposed trying to make sure training funds are used for training, and not lumped into teacher pay.

"It's going to end up in teachers' pockets," he said. "I just think that's the reality of this."