More Utah students will soon have an opportunity to learn languages such as Arabic and Chinese thanks to a last-minute decision by lawmakers Wednesday night.
At about one minute to midnight - the Legislature's deadline for passing bills - the Senate approved final House changes to SB41, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, which would put $750,000 toward critical language and dual immersion language programs.
Twenty Utah high schools and junior highs already offer Chinese and Arabic. The bill, if signed by the governor, would enable another 40 schools to also offer Chinese, Arabic and Russian, said Gregg Roberts, Utah State Office of Education world language specialist. It also would help create 15 elementary school dual-immersion programs in Chinese, Spanish, French and Navajo. Starting in kindergarten or first grade, students in the programs would spend half their time learning in English and the other half learning in the other language.
"We want to create students who are bi-literate," Roberts said. "No longer are students from Utah competing with students from California and Colorado . . . we are now competing with students from China, India and Europe."
Roberts knew the program had received funding but worried when the bill still hadn't passed late Wednesday.
"There was really nobody against the bill per se, it just got caught up in the politics," he said.
Though the Legislature's main budget committee had already agreed to fund the programs, the bill didn't go through the House until the last half hour Wednesday.
House Majority Leader David Clark said the House agreed to bring the bill to the floor shortly before midnight in exchange for the Senate's concurrence on changes to SB281, which added another $25 million in teacher compensation.
Senators wanted $1 million of SB281 to go toward incentives for teachers seeking American Board Distinguished Teacher certification. But the House voted to put that money instead toward other performance pay.
"We agreed with everything but that million," Clark said. "[It became a question of] how do we settle this difference between the two bodies?"
At first the Senate refused to accept the House's changes to SB281, but senators ultimately relented and voted for the bill by 25-2. Shortly after, the House approved the critical language bill unanimously and the Senate concurred.
Stephenson, however, said he was unaware of any deal to bring SB41 to the floor. He said it came up so late simply because legislators forgot to include it in an earlier comprehensive education bill.