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Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill Tuesday evening to expand online learning opportunities, putting to rest fears that he might veto the legislation because of financial concerns.
Herbert signed SB65 after meeting with staff and the bill sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, on Tuesday to work through "some fiscal concerns," said Ally Isom, the governor's spokeswoman.
The bill will allow school districts and online charter schools to offer online classes to students throughout the state. Funding will follow the students, meaning instead of a student's home district getting all the funding for that student, the school providing the online course will get part of it. The bill also will continue funding for the Utah Electronic High School for another year before making that school compete with other providers for dollars.
Isom did not give specifics about the governor's exact earlier concerns with the bill, but said, "He just wanted to make sure we weren't incurring a financial obligation in the administrative branch that wasn't funded."
The late signing followed a day of Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) pushing for the bill after the group heard Herbert was considering vetoing it.
Judi Clark, executive director of PCE, said the governor contacted Stephenson on Tuesday to tell him he was considering vetoing SB65.
PCE urged school choice supporters via Twitter and e-mail Tuesday to express their support for the bill to the governor. Stephenson did not return phone calls Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.
"The Governor has claimed repeatedly that he is a supporter of school choice and quality learning options for our students," a PCE e-mail sent out Tuesday said. "If he supports school choice, why would he veto this 21st century learning option for the students of our state!"
Critics of the bill, however, have worried about redirecting money from the Utah Electronic High School and school districts to other online schools. Now, the Electronic High School gets a set amount of state funding each year, but under the bill, it would have to start competing with other providers for those dollars in 2012-13. But the bill also directs the Education Interim Committee to study the Electronic High School's role and funding before the next legislative session.
"When we are flush with money and when we've got resources and adequate facilities and adequate educational experiences for the children in our system then I think we can talk about experimenting, but I get a little worried when we're sending money when we already have class sizes through the roof to other areas," said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association president, of the bill.
But Isom said the governor "has been very supportive of online options for parents. He's supportive of allowing students some flexibility in the modern era ... and he wanted to find a way to sign this bill."
Originally, the bill would have allowed private and out-of-state providers to offer online courses to Utah students and compete with public schools for those dollars, leading some opponents to label it a voucher bill. That provision, however, was removed before the Legislature passed it.