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Education bills pass, legislature looks at possible land battle
by KRISTEN DANIEL
Feb 08, 2012 | 790 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CEDAR CITY – In the second week of the 2012 Utah Legislative session, bills advanced or died in committees with education and the control of federal land being some hot issues.

Education is always a hot topic on the hill and to better follow the issues related specifically to education there is the official K-12 Public School Blog from the Utah State Board of Education and Utah State Office of Education, www.utahpubliceducation.org. This site lists each bill in categories and highlights those bills the board of education supports, opposes, thinks are unnecessary, supports the idea, or about which they have no opinion.

Seven of the current bills proposed are actively supported by the State Board of Education, and many are not issue-oriented enough for the board to have an opinion.

One bill that is opposed officially by the board is SB151, Student Opportunity Scholarships, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson (R). The State Board of Education voted in opposition of this bill that is being called another voucher bill.

Stephenson has touted the bill as targeted toward underprivileged students but places the income ceiling at $82,696. The bill allows allow donors to receive tax credits for giving money to scholarship organizations which in turn would award scholarships to students to help them attend private schools.

State Board of Education member Leslie Castle told the Salt Lake Tribune that she is opposed entirely to the measure.

“I believe public funding is meant for public education,” Castle said in a Tribune article, “and no matter how you switch that around, no matter what game you play, public money should go for public schools.”

One education bill that has passed the house is HB15. This bill would replace the Criterion Reference Test or CRT test given once a year to students with computer adaptive tests. These tests change in difficulty as students improve their skills, and would help teachers pinpoint a student’s strengths and weaknesses as the results would be immediate. The bill requires $6.7 million dollars in new funding for the public school system.

Another education bill, SB31 by Sen. Karen Morgan (D) passed its initial vote on the Senate floor. This bill requires a cap on class sizes at 20 students in kindergarten and 22 students in first, second, and third grades; or that teacher aides be in larger classes.

Although Cedar City District 72 Rep. Evan Vickers supports limiting class sizes, he is concerned for smaller, rural schools that often have limited personnel. Vickers said the bill itself has good merits, but may have some unintended consequences for smaller schools.

“I have visited with the rural senators who are working with Sen. Morgan, to try and solve these issues,” Vickers said.

HB258 by Rep. Kraig Powell (R) passed a house committee last week. The bill would restore $5 million in funding to public education school districts for students who attend applied technology campuses. Last year language was inserted in the public education appropriation bill that removed the funding. This funding is very critical to school districts such as Iron and Beaver Counties, because without it, students would not be allowed to attend the Southwest Applied Technology College in Cedar City.

One bill in progress – SB116 sponsored by Luz Robles (D) – allows active duty military personnel to claim a property tax exemption and has passed out of committee in the senate.

Vickers reported that in an effort to monitor areas where privatization may benefit the state, a year-long study was conducted by two professors, one from Southern Utah University and the other from Utah State University, as to whether the state should privatize the handling of applications of people applying for Medicaid. It was determined, however, there would not be any savings in efficiency or cost.

All the base budget bills were passed last week. The base budget, which is the starting point for the budget process, is the budget from last year minus the $52 million in one-time money that was used to balance that budget. Vickers said this is a significant improvement from last year, when the base budget was the previous year’s budget less 10 percent.

“This is a true indication that our economy has improved,” Vickers said.

HB33 was passed by the house, which modified when fireworks can be set off. This essentially restores the times to those previously in force: July 1-7, July 21-27, Dec. 31, and Chinese New Year's Eve. The curfew is 11 p.m. except for days that are holidays. Vickers said this change was in response to a great outcry from the citizens to return the restrictions back to what they were.

Two bills are being drafted that would require the federal government to give federal lands over to state control. Of course as a condition of achieving statehood, these lands were never in state control, and if the bills pass they will result in a court battle that will be both expensive and a long shot.

Sponsors of the bills are Rep. Ken Sumsion (R) who is also a candidate for governor, and Rep. Ken Ivory (R). The legal basis for these bills comes from the Enabling Act of 1894 which stated that the federal government would dispose of its lands in the state and give Utah schools 5 percent of the proceeds.

There are no specifics or restrictions in the bills as to what land could be sold or redesignated or to whom the state would sell the public lands, or who would control them. Also, under this law, there are no protections for national parks, which could be sold to private parties. Sumsion has stated he favors, instead, making the national parks into state parks, which could hurt tourism and no federal money would come in for the maintaining of those parks, leaving the states completely responsible for their care.

Vickers said among the tricky part of these bills will be how they address national parks and monuments, and then even more difficult will be how they address all the encumbrances on those lands like grazing rights, water rights, road access, etc.

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