Utah Governor Herbert Signs Two Significant Education Bills

(Photo Jim Urquhart, Reuters)

(Photo Jim Urquhart, Reuters)

Utah Governor Gary Herbert has signed two education bills promising to benefit students. The bills aim to “increase funding for early childhood programs and enhance community partnerships to improve student outcomes,” and they come in the wake of the Utah state legislature having approved $454 million for improving the state’s quality of education.

“By signing these bills and saying we believe in you, and we’re gonna put some money behind that belief to make sure these education programs continue, and I’m honored to have that opportunity to celebrate with you,” Governor Herbert said in an auditorium full of students at Lincoln Elementary School. Before these bills, Utah ranked as the lowest-funded school system in the country.

Samantha Finch of Parent Herald reports that the first bill, the High-Quality Preschool Readiness Expansion Program, will expand early childhood programs that will provide multiple sources for parents to improve their children’s early education. The second bill, Partnerships for Student Success, will increase community and social partnerships that will give children the necessary resources to help them succeed in and outside of the classroom. Additionally, $11.7 million dollars has been set aside for low-income families and students.

The sponsor of the education bills is State Senator Ann Millner, the former president of Weber State University. Millner believes that providing early education gives children better outcomes in life, and provides the foundation needed to thrive when more intensive reading and learning exercise begin in the third and fourth grades. “It’s very important for us to invest in these early learning programs that’ll help all out children be working at grade level,” said Senator Millner.

However, Senator Millner also stated that teachers need more resources in the classroom and that in-class technology needed to be improved. She acknowledged further areas in Utah’s education sector that needed more attention and increased funding.

The legislation was not without contention. Benjamin Wood of The Salt Lake Tribune writes that of particular concern was the appropriate distribution of funds. The Utah Education Association released a statement saying too much focus was placed on budget equality, rather than educational equity; it accused Utah lawmakers of ignoring the diverse needs of their state’s students.

The bills focus on the development and funding of charter schools, which tend to favor Utah’s wealthier and whiter students who are enrolled in smaller classes than their peers at non-charter schools. “Let’s talk about equity, not equal, and let’s talk about adequate. Those two words need to go hand in hand,” said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association.

Lawmakers also voiced their concerns about Utah’s computer-based testing system, SAGE. The legislature approved a measure that will remove SAGE scores from teacher evaluations, and school districts will have the option to offer the ACT instead of SAGE. Critics say SAGE is misused as a punitive measure against educators and is only in place to satisfy federal requirements about annual testing.

Overall, though, critics and advocates alike agree that the bills will improve the quality of Utah schools. State schools will receive a 3% bump, or $80 million, in per-pupil funding. They will also have an opportunity to apply for a $15 million grant program for classroom technology.