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In what has become an annual tradition for the last week of the legislative session, Utah lawmakers rejected a last-ditch effort by Democrats to boost per-student spending before adopting a new education budget on Tuesday.
The approved budget includes $90 million to address enrollment growth, and a 3 percent increase, roughly $80 million, in the weighted pupil unit unrestricted funds that are distributed statewide on a per-student basis.
Other budget items include $20 million for charter schools and a $15 million grant program for classroom technology.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday he was pleased with the budget and applauds the Legislature for its focus on education.
"Approximately 70 percent of all the new money that we have in the budget is going to education," Herbert said. "So again, I think we are prioritizing correctly."
Herbert's proposed budget called for $422 million in new money for education.
While some final appropriations have yet to be made, he said the bills approved Tuesday would top his recommendation by roughly $10 million.
"I can't say enough about the Legislature for their recognition of the need to fund, appropriately, education," Herbert said.
But Salt Lake City Democrat Rep. Brian King argued that a 3 percent bump in per-student spending was insufficient to address the needs of school districts.
He proposed a budget amendment on the House floor, which would have pulled funding from the technology grants and programs like the STEM Action Center to increase the WPU by an additional 1 percent.
"We don't need to increase taxes," he said. "We need to reallocate resources."
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said educators were told to be patient during the recession, but have yet to see a significant reinvestment in schools as the economy recovers. She said the state is facing a teacher shortage, and additional per-student spending would allow higher salaries for and retention of Utah's educators.
"This is, for most people, their No. 1 priority," Moss said, "that their children get the best possible education. We're letting them down and we're losing teachers as a result."
Several lawmakers objected to the proposal, citing negotiations that went into preparing the budget, the late hour in the legislative process and the strain a 4 percent WPU increase would place on other state expenses.
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley, said it is unfair and fiscally impossible to propose a school funding increase out of thin air.
"Until you actually have the 28 million [dollars] in your back pocket, I'm voting against it," he said.
But 15 Republicans joined with the Democrats in voting for the amendment.
Among them was South Jordan Republican Rep. Rich Cunningham, who said that between 2 percent and 2.5 percent of a school district's per-student money would be absorbed by increased health care and retirement costs for employees.
An increase of only 3 percent, he said, would leave little for districts to apply to academic and administrative needs.
"Those teachers that we need to support on a daily basis are the ones that are training and educating our future leaders that will be sitting in our seats one day," he said.
The amendment ultimately failed in a vote of 26-41.
The original budget proposal was then approved by the House and returned to the Senate, where it achieved final passage.
Acting State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said many of the state school board's priorities were included in the budget, including the technology grant program and an expansion of public preschool.
She said lawmakers have successfully funded enrollment growth for several years, and that investment, combined with a significant boost in per-student spending, will help schools prepare students for college and careers in the 21st century.
"Many hard choices had to be made, and we are happy to have been included in those thoughtful discussions," Dickson said.