House committee tables class size bill

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 8:55 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers tabled a bill on Wednesday that would set class size restrictions on kindergarten through third grades.

The bill, SB31, divided the House Revenue and Taxation Standing Committee, with representatives agreeing generally on the goal of reducing class sizes but disagreeing on the potential consequences of the bill, especially its funding. 

The bill, which was tabled on an 8-4 vote, calls for the phasing in class-size caps, over a four-year period, for kindergarten through third-grade classes. It calls for a maximum of 20 kindergarten students per class in its first year and in its original form carried a cost of $3.6 million to assist districts in the transition.

That fiscal note was eliminated through amendments on the Senate floor, instead linking the caps to existing class-size reduction funds that this year awarded $103 million — and is expected to increase next year by approximately $3.2 million — to school districts but currently has no specific criteria.

"This is the first time that we will actually have a standard in place," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who presented the bill along with its sponsor, Sen. Karen Morgan, R-Cottonwood Heights.

Under the current language of SB31, school districts would not be awarded additional money — beyond the natural growth of the class size reduction funds — to meet the bill's criteria, but would lose funding if they failed to meet the class size restrictions.

Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, said that the bill would ask school districts to do "different things with the same money," and added that the schools in her district had an average class size above the level set in the bill.

"This could easily cost the districts more money," she said.

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, agreed, saying that the committee was "talking about money that's already spent," and speculated that school districts would be forced to raise taxes to meet the terms of the bill.

Richard Reese, who testified on behalf of the Utah School Boards Association and Utah Schools Superintendents Association, speculated that without additional funds, the designated class sizes could shrink grades four, five and six class sizes would grow. He also said if each school hired para-professionals to satisfy the bill's student-teacher ratio requirement it could cost would be more than $16 million.

Morgan described the monetary concerns as a "chicken and egg situation." Utah, she said, has the largest classes in the country and is one of only 14 states that has not enacted some form of class-size legislation that holds the funding accountable.

"Before we put any more money into that, we have to have standards in place," she said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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