Public education is one of the most important areas of public policy that the Legislature considers each year. The policies and funding decisions touch every Utah family and are a critical factor in the future success or failure of our State. We are several weeks away from finalizing the budget, but preliminary numbers require every department to absorb a 7 percent cut due to the recession. This is very unlikely to be the final number as far as public education is concerned. The Legislature has insulated public education from the worst of the budget cuts in past years and that is unlikely to change.
While funding decisions are still a few weeks away, there are, however, many different policy debates concerning public education well under way. One idea that is getting a lot of traction is a proposal by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (R-Cottonwood Heights) to introduce a system to grade schools. His bill (SB 59) would assign letter grades to schools based on test scores and graduation rates for high schools. By giving each school a grade, parents, communities, teachers, administrators, and business leaders can more readily perceive how schools are doing and when they might need to become more directly engaged. The formula for test scores would include the following:
1. The achievement level of a school’s students in language arts, mathematics, science, and writing as measured by statewide assessments.
2. Learning gains of a school’s students on statewide assessments of language arts and mathematics achievement.
3. Learning gains of the lowest 25 percent of students on statewide assessments of language arts and mathematics achievements, which would be double weighted.
There has been some concern that this approach might hurt low performing schools. However, the learning gains of the lowest 25 percent of students will be double weighted for their progress, so an underperforming school will be incentivized to focusing on their lowest performing students and could raise their grade very quickly. Whether a single grade can represent the results and efforts of an entire school will be vigorously debated.
Another educational concept that is receiving a lot of attention deals with online classes for high schools students. Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) wants to expand online class offerings and views this as a way to broaden course offerings and to individualize instruction in ways a traditional classroom setting cannot. At this time, the bill (SB 65) contains a somewhat controversial funding mechanism that would allow the funding for the online classes to follow the student to any program that offered qualified on-line classes, which could include private schools or other private business enterprises. Some view this as an unnecessary diversion of funds from an already cash-strapped public school system.
These are just two of many public education proposals making their way through the legislative process. This is a critical area of public policy and I encourage all interested parties to follow the public education discussion in person or online. All floor debate and committee hearings are broadcast on the legislative website at www.le.utah.gov.
Brad Wilson represents House District 15 in Davis County. He can be reached at Bradwilson@utah.gov during the legislative session.