Call for smaller classes stalls for lack of funding

Published: Monday, Feb. 25 2013 7:55 p.m. MST

Teacher Stacey Johnsen works with her students at Daybreak Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. HB318, sponsored by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, would set class-size caps at 20 students for kindergarten, 22 for first and second grades, and 24 for the third grade.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SOUTH JORDAN — There were 25 students present Monday in Stacey Johnsen's second-grade class at Daybreak Elementary School.

They quietly worked on math exercises while Johnsen sketched a series of analog clock faces on the white board as part of her lesson.

That same day, lawmakers in the House Education Committee debated a bill that decrees Johnsen's class three students too large.

If the bill were law, Daybreak Elementary would be faced with hiring teacher's assistants for classes similar to Johnsen's, creating an additional class with a new teacher or losing out out on state funds the school and district has come to depend on.

"We'd certainly have to figure out what we'd do with those students who don't quite fit in our classroom because we've capped out in the particular grade," said Cindy Tingey,  assistant principal at Daybreak Elementary. "We'd have to be creative in how we're going to educate those students as well."

HB318, sponsored by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, would set class-size caps at 20 students for kindergarten, 22 for first and second grades, and 24 for the third grade. It would stagger the implementation of those caps, beginning in the 2013-14 school year and would tie existing funds as a reward for meeting those thresholds.

The bill would provide no additional funds to schools, but schools that fail to comply would potentially lose out on money they've relied on for the past 20 years to keep class sizes as low as they currently are.

"For our district, it would be cataclysmic," Logan School District Superintendent Marshal Garrett said of losing class-size reduction funding.

After debate Monday at the Capitol that centered on the funding concerns raised by the bill, the committee voted to move on without taking official action on HB318. Whether the bill comes up again for consideration by the committee is up to the committee chairman.

Edwards said a motivation behind the bill was to increase the accountability of how schools use the class-size reduction funds allotted to them. She said current class sizes are a combination of funding limitations and administrative decisions made by school districts, and the bill would ensure that money appropriated for class-size reduction is, in fact, applied toward decreasing the number of students per class.

"School districts have tools here that they can utilize to accommodate the provision in the bill that requires class-size caps," she said. "I would see this more as a mandate for accountability rather than a mandate for a program."

According to the most recent data from the Utah State Office of Education, the median class size in the state is 22 students for kindergarten, 23 for first grade, 24 for second grade and 25 for third grade.

Smaller class size is widely regarded as a key component in improving student performance, as a low student-teacher ratio allows for more personal, individualized education. But beyond the cost of hiring teachers, small classes raise an issue of building capacity, with fewer students per class resulting in a need for more individual class units.

Public schools, unlike charter and private schools, are not able to turn away students once capacity is reached, and the number of students attending Utah's public schools surpassed 60,000 for the first time in 2012.

If Daybreak Elementary found the money to hire a teacher for an additional class, there would be the question of where to put an extra group of second-grade students on a campus that already houses four portable classrooms next to the parking lot.

"We're beyond capacity," Tingey said. "This whole Herriman (High School) feeder area is beyond capacity."

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