Digital Teaching Bill Advances Amid Concerns of School Budgets

Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican -  Draper)
Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper)

Legislation that would allocate nearly $76 million to help improve technology in Utah’s schools was met with both enthusiasm and trepidation Wednesday.

SB 222 – Digital Teaching and Learning Program, which is sponsored by Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper), passed out of the Senate Education Committee on a 7-1 vote with Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) giving the only dissenting vote.

Under the bill, the Digital Teaching and Learning Program would be created. Operating on a grant basis, the program’s goal will be to help improve student outcomes through the use of digital teaching and learning technology as well as professional development for educators.

In order to receive funding, school districts would need to come up with a technology plan and also be willing to match the funds allocated by the state.

Stephenson argued that it’s a necessary investment to help bring Utah’s education system in line with modern standards. “I’m really passionate about personalizing learning. The 19th-century classroom was great for its time and it’s the best we could do, but today we have the capacity to personalize learning for every single child. This is going to give teachers the tools they need to respond to those personal needs of every student.”

Committee members expressed concern over the cost of the program and the impact it would have on the education budget.

Dabakis has issues with the bill’s large price tag. “I would be much more favorable toward it if this came from an entirely different funding source. I see that we are just strapped [financially].” He would add that he feels that $75 million is simply too much to take out of the education budget, especially since class sizes are already so large and the budget is tight enough as it is.

“If you’re willing to participate in a tax increase to fund this,” Dabakis noted. “I think it’s a great use of funds, but if it means we’re going to have more kids in our classrooms or less teacher salaries or a lot of other things I think, unless we come up with a new, additional funding source, it’s hard for me to justify, in a school system that is so strapped for money right now, this kind of allocation.”

State Superintendent Brad Smith told the committee that Stephenson’s proposal is one of the state school board’s top three or four funding priorities.

Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council, is optimistic about the bill’s objectives. “This addresses, as well as anything we’re doing, the capacity issues that are needed in our pipeline.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate for its consideration.

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