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Top education issues to watch during the 2017 Legislative Session

When Utahns were polled last November asking them to rank their legislative priorities, education came out on top. But the results were nothing new or surprising—polls taken over the years have consistently reported that Utahns want education to be a top legislative priority. Yet the state’s education-related troubles persist. From worrisome teacher retention rates to crowded classrooms to low (lowest in the country, actually) per-pupil funding, Utah’s education industry is not a bright spot in the state’s otherwise very robust economy.

Each legislative session, Utah’s 104 legislators have an opportunity to enhance the state’s K-12 and higher education classrooms, but the task is easier said than done. Similar questions remain year after year: Will education receive a financial boost? How can we attract and retain more teachers? How can technology be appropriately used in the classroom, and can we find the budget for it? The list goes on and on.

As Utah’s 45-day legislative session opens on Monday, Jan. 23, there’s a lot for the state’s legislators to consider, and education is just one of many pressing issues to debate—but it’s an important one. Here Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, former Weber State University president and member of the senate education committee, shares what she thinks will be the top five education issues up for discussion during this year’s session.

Property tax distribution

Funding Utah’s classrooms is far and away the most highly discussed education issue during each legislative session, and this year is no different. Utah’s students fared relatively well during last year’s session, as education received a financial boost of $440 million in new spending, which increased per-pupil spending by 3.75 percent. But Utah still ranks dead last in per pupil funding, a sobering statistic with no easy solution in sight. And with more than 10,000 new students expected to enroll next year, Utah needs to come up with an additional $115 million just to keep current funding even, according to Ben Leishman, legislative fiscal analyst.

During this year’s session, Millner anticipates funding discussions to center on property tax allocation. According to Millner, school districts with lower property values collect less revenues, leading to classroom resource disparities throughout the state.

“We’re going to focus on trying to provide a more equitable allocation of property taxes to try to create more equitable educational opportunities on all sides,” says Millner. “We’re going to look at all the components of funding and how it is distributed.”

Millner says she’d like to see the state adopt a distribution model that is similar to its income tax model. “With our income tax dollars, we have a very good formula for really supporting equitable distribution, so I’d like to see something like that.”

Teacher retention and development

Keeping Utah’s classrooms staffed with quality teachers is another pressing issue year after year. In fact, according to the Utah State Office of Education, more than 40 percent of new teachers leave within their first five years. And, about one-third of those teachers don’t even make it to a second year—they quit at the end of their first year on the job.

Millner says the committee will focus on finding creative ways to more effectively onboard and support new teachers. “If you’re a brand-new teacher, you need mentoring, coaching and support as you enter the classroom in the first couple of years, so we’re focusing on what are things we can do to more effectively support new teachers and help them be successful.”

Beyond new teachers, Millner says the committee will look at creating new ways to support all teachers. “We want to help teachers who are really good and effective teachers that are interested in being able to have leadership roles,” she says. “We want to engage them and help them find ways to have an impact on an entire school without necessarily being in administration. We want to support the professional development of our teachers.”

Competency-based education

Competency-based education is a model that provides compensation to schools when their students graduate early or master a skill or subject. Under the competency-based education model, students who demonstrate mastery of a skill or subject can progress without waiting for the academic year to end. While this model seems straightforward, participating schools have lost funding when students graduate early, due to technicalities in the way the state’s funding system is set up.

During last year’s session, Utah’s legislators took steps to ensure participating schools didn’t lose their much-needed funding by developing a way for those schools to receive grants when their students graduated early. Millner, however, says it’s not enough and hopes to see more support for schools participating in competency-based education this year.

“Mastery-based or competency-based education would not be a mandate, but we want to give districts and schools who want to have more mastery-based learning the opportunity to do it. The goal is to remove barriers,” she says.

Performance-based funding in higher ed

Measures to enact performance-based funding at Utah’s institutions of higher education are also likely to be on the upcoming session’s agenda, says Millner. “There’s been discussion around how do we begin the process to do performance-based funding. We need to ensure that we establish a formula for our UCAT [Utah College of Applied Technology] system on performance-based funding and in the USHE [Utah System of Higher Education] system. If an institution is meeting their goals, they would receive funding. The goal is to focus on completion and outcomes.”

Aligning higher education with workforce demands is another issue to watch. “We need to find ways to make sure that we are aligning our programs with the needs of our workforce,” says Millner. “We need to find ways to make sure higher education meets the needs, and that students know what their options are. We need to make sure that we provide an opportunity for high school students and their parents to get access to more information to inform their decision-making process about careers.”

Student assessment and anti-bullying

Millner hopes to find ways to enhance the assessment and accountability of high school students. “There was a great deal of discussion over the summer about rethinking assessment tests used in high schools, like the ACTs,” she says. “We want to have more meaningful assessments of high school students that will necessitate changes on the accountability side.”

Though she hasn’t heard any specific discussions about anti-bullying measures, Millner thinks the topic will also have a place on the legislative agenda during this year’s session. “Bullying is a great deal of concern to a lot of people and parents. We need to address the issues of student bullying and our student suicide rate,” she says. “We’ll probably see some things focused on supporting our children to make sure we’re doing all we can do to address their emotional issues and find ways to be more effective at helping them.”