Legislative Committee Praises Libraries and Languages, Questions Reading Program

Lawmakers visit with public education advocates after the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting today.Superintendent Larry Shumway visits with Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) after the meeting.Board Chairwoman Debra Roberts and District 4 Board Member David Thomas talk to Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) after the meeting.

Libraries and foreign languages have won the hearts of prominent lawmakers on the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriatoins Subcommittee, while an early education reading program garnered questions and calls for further review.

Rep. Merlynn Newbold (R-South Jordan), who is co-chair of the committee, questioned the efficacy of the $14.7 million K-3 Reading Improvement Program. She said, in looking at scores on two standardized tests:

“As I looked from district to district [...] it appears that our scores are remaining rather flat.”

The committee’s other chair, Sen. Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan), and Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) agreed with Rep. Newbold. Buttars called the program a “sacred cow” and Stephenson questioned why this money isn’t going to purchase literacy software for students.

Sen. Karen Morgan (D-Salt Lake City) defended the program, as did Utah State Board of Education District 4 Member David Thomas and USBE Chairwoman Debra Roberts, who said the money was spent wisely on professional development for teachers, hiring literacy specialists and developing reading libraries that can adapt to the needs of individual students.

” As I came onto the board eight years ago, there’s been a fundamental change in the way reading has been approached,” she said. “We’ve learned how the brain works, we’ve learned how children learn read and that has changed over time. So a lot of this money went into changing fundamentally the way teachers approach teaching reading to their students, a kind of a revamping of how they teach and what they teach.”

The program earmarks state dollars that are matched by local district funds. It was championed by former Governor Olene Walker to get all children reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Lawmakers shaved the program by $300,000 last legislative session and if today’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting is an indicator of what’s to come, they’re considering further reductions.

The committee also spent much time praising school libraries and librarians and the critical languages and dual immersion programs.

“I think we’re really missing the boat by shorting these libraries,” Buttars said. “I didn’t learn to use a library until I was a freshman in college. And boy, did I wake up when I ran into a good librarian that taught me how to use that library. It isn’t just the books, you’ve got to have a great librarian. And I want to tell you, they would play an enormous roll if we would quit cutting their funding.”

The line item Library Books and Electronic Resources was created in 2008 and given $1.5 million. It was cut by $1 million in FY 2010 and $75,000 in FY 2011. Buttars says he would like to see this funding restored at an even higher level than it’s original amount.

Stephenson, who sponsored the critical languages bill in 2007, said, “I just have to acknowledge that the State Office of Education, they are … the way they implemented this is to be commended. It is implemented as optimally as it possibly could be.”

Buttars agreed and said the critical languages and dual immersion program should receive even more funding. However, unlike most public education programs, this line item has received more funding as Utah weathered the Great Recession. It has more than quadrupled since FY 2009 and is currently funded at just under $1 million.

During the meeting, lawmakers also questioned International Baccalaureate (which has been the focus of legislative scrutiny in the past), School Trust Lands funds, school supplies and signing bonuses for teachers.

Listen to the meeting here. Read @UTPublicEd tweets here. And friend us on Facebook here to keep up with the latest from the Utah Capitol during the legislative session, which kicks off on Monday.

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