Public Education Budget
Photo by: Anna C. Brandao

Figuring out the State budget at the beginning of the Legislative Session is like predicting the winner of the Super Bowl. You know the game, have your favorite, but have little idea on the outcome.
A couple of years ago, I attended a National Governors Association meeting where Jim Collins the author of several business books spoke, including Built To Last and Good To Great. He talked about several of his leadership concepts; what makes great companies great. After his presentation, a Governor raised his hand and asked whether these concepts also applied to government. After a pause, Collins responded, “not really”. Why not? “Too many hands on the wheel.” Or in other words, too many decision makers. And that is the challenge predicting budget appropriations at this point in the Session.
The Public Education Appropriations budget has a lot of hands on the wheel.

The State Board of Education has the general supervision and control over education in Utah according to the Utah Constitution. So we have to look first to their priorities. For many of the last 20 years I’ve been observing the Legislative process, these recommendations were ignored because they weren’t feasible. Instead of looking at budget projections, they would ask for “pie in the sky” or amounts of money not connected to reality. However, in recent years we have seen a new attitude and reasonable requests based on budget projections. The Governor and Legislature are now paying attention.

The State Board’s biggest priorities are funding growth in number of students ($70 million), and a 2.7% increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) ($73 million). Then they have a series of ongoing and one time funding priorities.

The Governor normally takes those recommendations under consideration in his own budget. This year, the Governor’s budget recommendation for public education gets $169 million ongoing and $92 million one-time. His biggest priorities to be funded include student growth ($64 million) and 2.5% WPU increase ($61.6 million). See pages 2, 13, 14 in Governor’s recommendations.

It is interesting that fully funding growth has two different estimates; one by the State Board and one by the Governor. Until now, we have recommendations by influencers. Important influencers, but nonetheless, the Legislature appropriates. They are the decision makers. The Governor only has veto power, but with Republican super-majorities that veto power is more limited than when there is greater balance between Rs and Ds.

After a little over one week one of the Legislative Session, we have some hints but no firm direction on where the Legislature will go.

From the House side, Speaker Lockhart suggested an Education renaissance in Utah. Based on her speech and then some emerging details, she is suggesting investing up to $300 million to put a digital device in the hands of every Utah school child, wire buildings, promote Digital Learning tools and maybe most importantly reinvest in the most indispensable person in any classroom; the teacher. Providing professional development that allows teachers to become proficient at using this technology to elevate student outcomes is the key to the entire proposal.

From the Senate side, Senator Stephenson is running a bill, not yet released, but recommended by the State Board of Education for $50 million for digital devices in schools. What appeared to be the ceiling just a few days ago, now appears to be the floor due to the Speaker’s proposal.

When a big idea is introduced and supported by The Governor, The House Speaker or the Senate President everyone pays attention. As leaders, they are responsible to challenge government to do better, be more efficient, produce higher outcomes and represent Utah citizens best.

The STEM Action Center located in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development has owned the Digital Learning space and now they are piloting some best practice Professional Development STEM Certification for teachers. The Senate has evangelized Digital Learning for years, led by Senator Stephenson, Senator Urquhart and Senator Adams. Now the House is owning the Digital Devices and wiring schools and classrooms.

Together, Utah is set up for a successful endeavor.

There is little doubt that if done correctly, digital learning can make a profound difference in student outcomes. But look no further than Utah. The STEM Action Center just completed a digital learning pilot for Jr. High School Math and the data shows that students who used the digital learning produced much better student outcomes than those who didn’t. Preliminarily, over the four months of the pilot student Math competency was up to 18% higher in classrooms that used Digital Learning tools vs. classrooms that didn’t.

In a state where almost one out of every four Utahns is a school aged child, we aren’t able to reduce class sizes significantly without huge tax increases. Digital Learning allows a teacher to more effectively assess student comprehension and then immediately remediate those who don’t understand a concept. No more waiting until the next test to see who understands.

Just like the Super Bowl prognosticators, I have no idea how things will turn out. If I had to guess, student growth will be funded; the WPU increase will be close to 2.5%, but largely earmarked for specific purposes; and there will be a funding plan likely over 2-3 years to put a digital device in the hands of every school child at $200 million – $300 million. A sizeable part of that money will also go to a certification program for teachers, to wire schools and to buy Digital Learning tools.

Where will the Legislature get the money? I’m like you. I only know what I read in the newspaper. We will know more when the budget numbers come out in a couple of weeks. Funding will likely be with a combination of ongoing and one-time funding. There might be some internal reallocation of the public education budget. Other priorities might get a haircut, except student growth. General fund money might be reallocated education

And there might be a local school district match. In almost 20 years watching the Legislature, whether we are up $1 billion or down $1 billion in tax revenue, I have never seen the Legislature not fund what they want to fund.

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