Amid Funding Questions, Technology in Education Bill Moves to Full House

(KCPW News) A much-heralded plan to introduce more technology in Utah’s classrooms was heard in a legislative committee on Wednesday. Dubbed the Public Education Modernization Act, the bill received a favorable recommendation by a 13-1 vote.

But the proposal, which could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, did see a fair amount of debate in its first legislative test.

One of House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s passion projects this legislative session is a fairly big idea: what if every public school student in Utah had a computer, or a tablet?

At first, that big idea was thin on details. But earlier this month, a formal proposal was drafted and rolled out to the public. That proposal became HB 131, a bill sponsored Republican Rep. Frank Gibson.

The House Education Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Gibson, spent virtually their entire meeting on Wednesday morning hearing HB 131. That included a roughly 40-minute presentation from Gibson before committee members got the chance to ask questions.

Members addressed several concerns, such as challenges with implementation.

Democratic Rep. Carol Spackman Moss wondered whether investing in devices for students is an improvement when many students already have access to their own technology.

“Most students already use technology, that’s without a doubt. That’s part of their lives,” Moss said. “I don’t know how this would improve that.”

Gibson agreed with Moss, but added that this program is also about bringing educators up to speed, with investments in teacher training a key part of the bill.

“You’re exactly right: kids are doing this. Kids are using Facebook or Twitter or communicating through technology,” he said. “It’s the adults, and having us as adults utilize that form of communication to enrich the education experience. That’s what I’m asking for.”

A couple committee members were also curious about how the plan would be funded, seeing as Gibson proposes no additional revenue from taxes. But Gibson was dismissive of such questions, saying the committee hearing was not the time or place to negotiate funding.

“If you’re asking for me to pick the point right now and just start the fight, that’s above my paygrade,” Gibson said. “You will have an opportunity on the (House) floor to say, ‘You know what? Don’t like it. Don’t like where that money came from,’ and vote no.”

A long list of citizens testified at the hearing representing many different interests, and they all got about a minute each in the interest of time.

Sarah Jones of the Utah Education Association said her group conducted some informal polling of teachers about the bill, and she urged committee members to consider the input of educators while vetting this legislation.

“I think it’s important to hear from those who will actually be tasked with implementing this program,” Jones said.

She added, “Most are already using technology, and they support the chance to scale up technology. But not if it comes at the expense of existing education needs. And that’s the critical factor.”

With a 13-1 vote of approval in committee, Lockhart’s education initiative now faces a long battle over funding in the House.

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