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Education policymakers are busy figuring out how to implement a complicated education reform bill that takes effect today, although students won't notice the difference until this fall.
The provisions of HB181 simplify the process for firing teachers, provide $7.5 million to pilot programs for improving mathematics instruction in grades 4 to 6 and set aside $7.5 million to help struggling students pass the Utah Basic Skills Accountability Test, the state's high school exit exam.
The 2006 Legislature passed nearly 400 bills, and 39 of those new laws start affecting Utahns' lives today. The state's fiscal year begins July 1, meaning this is also the day Utah's $10 billion budget goes into effect.
Educators are happy about the funding for the math initiative and the help to get students past the high school exit exam, said Kim Burningham, chairman of the State Board of Education. But many were displeased that the Legislature attached strings to the money - an experiment in incentive pay for teachers and a voucher program for private tutoring.
Students who fail the exit exam three times, or haven't passed it by the end of their junior year, are eligible for the program. The vouchers can be paid out to districts, charter schools or private providers that meet eligibility requirements - but only after students pass the test. If students fail the test after participating in a program, the provider is not allowed to charge for the amount of the voucher.
"You have to have a lot of confidence in your own program," said Shelly Siebach, general manager of Oxford Learning Source, a private tutoring service that has applied to participate. "We wouldn't apply if we didn't have confidence that it would work."
Ray Timothy, associate state school superintendent, said the law allows public school teachers and others to open part-time tutoring services that could accept the vouchers. A business license and a teaching certificate is required. However, because the majority of students who fail the exit exams multiple times have been diagnosed with learning disorders or lack English proficiency, reimbursement is not a certainty.
"We never give up on kids," Timothy said. "But you are talking about a small number of students and a difficult population to work with. It would take some intense work and dedication to make sure they pass the test."
The Utah State Office of Education still is accepting applications from private tutoring providers interested in participating, but Burningham said few companies have applied.
The grades 4 through 6 math-initiative section of HB181 offers grants to districts and charter schools that devise innovative programs for giving bonuses to effective teachers, improving teachers' math skills or both. But the subject of bonus pay is a touchy one among educators; many feel it gives incentive for teachers to avoid teaching difficult students.
However, Timothy said he likes the way the new law encourages incentive pay experiments on a limited basis, along with experiments in professional development.
"I'm kind of excited about this portion of the bill," Timothy said. "Seeing the results will help us determine the next steps. We need this kind of data to justify our requests."
The Utah Office of Education received 26 grant applications by its June 16 deadline, mostly from districts. The proposals are being reviewed by an independent panel.
Reporter Rebecca Walsh contributed to this story.