Utah’s higher education aims still can’t get us out of our hole

If altitude had anything to do with the Race to the Top Fund’s recent contest, Utah probably would have been a finalist.

However, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Fund is for states reforming their compulsory education practices. The 10 finalists were announced on August 24, and none of those finalists were Utah. Apparently, we’ve been out of the competition since the end of July. This would be the second time that Utah has applied for the funds and won nothing.

Many people are unfamiliar with what this bill is or what it would do for our schools had we actually won something.

2010 is the third consecutive year that Utah’s education system has faced budget cuts, and the need for reform has become more obvious with the decline in finances. Although 13 percent of the state budget for K-12 education has been cut for the 2010 fiscal year, and some of those cuts have been backfilled, the books have essentially been left open for further cuts.

While the situation varies from district to district and from school to school, many of the budget cuts have left teachers scrambling to find jobs. Other cuts, however, have left many students without a means of actually getting to school in order to save educators from being laid-off.

“Transportation has been cut,” said Larry Newton, Utah State Office of Education school finance director. Many districts cut the use of buses this school year and are covering fewer areas. As a result, school became less accessible to many students.

“Some districts have had to say ‘Look, we can no longer transport kids that are less that 1 1/2 or 2 miles [away] because it is more of courtesy,’ ” Newton added.

The state really can’t do much to ease any of the budget shortfalls. Much of the needed funding for our schools would need to come from a larger entity. Race to the Top funding would likely ease some of the chaos created by state budget cuts at the federal level.

Race to the Top allows states that submit applications to compete with each other for federal funds based on points they receive for their items in their application, which include: adopt standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and careers; create data systems to measure growth and success and inform teachers on how they can improve; get and retain teachers in schools where they’re needed most; and significantly change their lowest performing schools.

Winning states can receive between $20 and $700 million based on population. Utah falls into a category of state that would receive between $60 and $175 million that would go towards furthering current and implementing new reforms that fit those four main criteria.

Utah was one of 35 states that applied for Phase 2 of Race to the Top. Our application scores did not put us in the finals in either phase. It has, however, been encouraging conscious efforts towards improving Utah’s educational landscape in the long term by participating in such programs.

With over 250 pages and many hours going into the creation of the bill, Utah’s elimination from Race to the Top appears to be a more upsetting loss.

“The Race to the Top application isn’t just something we filled out,” Newton said of Utah’s participation in the program. “It’s a great deal of effort [that] took several hundred man hours for about three weeks.”

Utah schools do have other options for obtaining funding from the federal government.

Some schools, like Vineyard Elementary School, have been able to maintain faculty members and many other school services because of additional funding from Title 1, but that funding tends to vary from school to school.

“We’re on full Title 1 funding, so we had additional money to work with,” said Principal Sylvia Allan. “It has filled a void in that we could have had. It made a huge difference.”

Another short-term option the state has is the Edujobs Bill that would provide money to compensate many teachers. The money would be a one-time stimulus of sorts, but at the end of the year when the funds run out, the school system will likely “be hanging over the same cliff,” Newton said.

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