Complete with a multi-color flow chart, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart walked her GOP caucus through her “big education bill” Thursday afternoon in an open meeting.
In fact, the briefing by Lockhart, R-Provo, and Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who will carry the bill in the House, provided important details in how the massive new public education technology initiative will work, but no news on how it will be paid for.
Asked if he had anything to add on where the money will come from, House Budget Chairman Mel Brown said: “No; we have no idea yet.”
The late February revenue updates may be higher than current projections – and so Lockhart could find an extra $50 million or $100 million there.
But Lockhart pleaded with her fellow Republicans to look beyond the money – which ultimately could be total between $250 million and $300 million.
“Look at the vision” of getting every public and charter school hooked up to broadband Internet, first.
Then a well-planned and coordinated teacher training program, second.
And finally providing each child, K-12, with an electronic device – a tablet or a laptop depending on age and need – so that teacher, child, administrator can take advantage of all that the high-tech world can provide.
Overall, the vision that Lockhart and Gibson presented to their fellow Republicans makes sense.
And Lockhart, who is retiring this year and may run for governor in 2016, is following a smart political strategy – although she may have stumbled out of the blocks when the plan was first published in The Salt Lake Tribune and she couldn’t give specifics several weeks ago.
Lockhart may still be playing some catch-up with GOP senators and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert – who didn’t even know about her ideas when he put together his 2014-2015 budget proposals and has already allocated around $200 million to education spending increases.
Herbert and the elected State Board of Education does want around $50 million for school technology next year.
But Lockhart’s plan would be to take all of that.
In some cases, the 41 school district’s technology plans may fit in well with her “connect all schools” bridge.
But other districts’ technology plans may not fit so well.
Gibson and Lockhart – still waiting for the February updates – are scraping various money barrels.
Lockhart said it would make little sense for school districts to buy new hardbound textbooks next year, when the district could be using those funds to buy new tablets, laptops and software – should they be ready for Step 2 in what Gibson calls “the big education bill.”
“They could go one more year with old textbooks, right?” said Lockhart.
An aside here: To no one’s surprise Lockhart’s plan is not called BeckySTEM, the rather unflattering name given to her idea by some Senate wags.
Gibson says the official title of the bill is: Public Education Modernization Act, or PEMA.
Lockhart and her supporters especially didn’t like the idea of tying STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – a current state education program touted by Herbert – to her plan.
However, it should be noted that Lockhart’s husband, Stan, is a board member of STEM Action Center, a Herbert-initiated program within his economic development office.
And Speaker Lockhart’s diagram shows that the action center’s director will be on her bill’s appointed advisory board – which will oversee the multi-million education technology program along with the elected State Board of Education.
Anyway, Lockhart’s bill (which is supposed to be out on the web sometime Thursday night under Gibson’s sponsorship) was never meant to be funded in just this year, Gibson told his caucus.
Perhaps $50 million could be found in the new budget to help start connecting schools to broadband Internet.
Technically, this will be a grant program. And if any of the state’s 41 school districts and several dozen charter schools don’t want to participate, they don’t have to.
But in reality, said several GOP House members, considering the big bucks available, and the advantages of being in the program for teachers, administrators, parents and kids, no district will opt out.
In fact, some districts, like the Davis School District, already have all of their schools linked up to the Web via Wi-Fi, said Gibson.
But, asked Rep. Dana Layton, R-Orem, won’t those further-ahead districts feel put upon.
“They have already bought their iPhones” for their teachers and children, “while all the rest of the districts” which are behind “will have their (devices) provided by ObamaPhone” – a government-paid-for program.
“You punish those who already went ahead and did it,” said Layton.
Devices are only one part of a multi-faceted program, said Gibson.
Even more important will be teacher and administrator training in best use of the new technology, he added.
“We want the districts to have skin in the game,” so they want the new program to succeed and will work hard to implement it, Gibson added.
In fact, there will be various safeguards – and guideposts – that must be met along the way in order for the districts to participate and continue to advance.
And there will be a statewide, independent evaluator who will determine when district IT operations, teachers and administrators are ready for the next step in the program.
All this is not to just get districts and classrooms hooked up to the Internet, a tablet in each kid’s hands, and say good luck, added Lockhart.
There will be hard, defined metrics to prove the new leap-forward works.
For example, maybe one goal may be all kids reading or doing math ahead of current standards. Certainly, we’ll want high school graduation rates to increase.
Lockhart and Gibson cited studies where schools in other states have seen up to 8 percent increases in graduation rates because of classroom technology and smart teaching.
Similar, measurable goals will be part of PEMA.
Lockhart said Utah children are already on smart phones, tablets and laptops. It is there parents – her generation – that is lagging behind.
Gone are the “agrarian days” of paper, pencils and hardback books, she said.
“If we are not helping them” learn via the latest technologies – not the technologies we were comfortable with – “shame on us,” said Lockhart.
Gibson several times stressed that these new technologies – where students text teachers in the classroom to privately ask for help, where teachers can immediately refer students to better online explanations and information – don’t replace “good teachers.”
“We still need the person to put a hand on the shoulder and say “you can do this – because I’ve done this.” No one is depersonalizing education.”
PEMA “is another tool to allow that teacher to reach out to the individual needs of the student,” he said.
But Herbert wants millions of dollars next year to raise the WPU – the standard per-student funding formula – by 2.5 percent.
And the WPU usually translates into teacher pay raises.
So, if PEMA ends up cutting the WPU’s 2.5 percent increase, then some of the positive caucus talk Thursday about Lockhart’s “big education bill” will hit a fiscal reality.