Call for smaller classes stalls for lack of funding

Published: Monday, Feb. 25 2013 7:59 p.m. MST

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, was critical of the bill, questioning how schools could be expected to lower class sizes without an increased investment. He also described the provision that would take money away from struggling and heavily populated schools as a backward and "perverse incentive."

"If we're going to say now that we're mandating that class sizes be different than they are today, then some money has to come from somewhere," Nielson said. "To me, that's the very definition of an unfunded mandate."

In order to meet the bill's requirements with no additional funding, educators say districts would likely be forced to shift resources from the older to the younger grades, meaning larger class sizes at the junior high and high school levels for the sake of smaller classes in elementary.

Utah is one of only 14 states that has not set caps for class size, Edwards said. The bill is designed to increase educational outcomes of smaller classes, she said, and focus on the first grades of a student's education, which research shows is crucial for development and for establishing a pattern of grade-level performance. 

Edwards said it is necessary to prioritize the kindergarten through third grades but acknowledged that doing so would result in adjustments to the remaining grades of the public school system.

Tingey agreed with the importance of the kindergarten through third grades. She said students who meet grade-level expectations at that level are typically on a better track to maintain academic performance later in life.

But older students have needs and challenges as well, Tingey said, and ideally, class sizes should be lowered at all levels of public education.

"We're all about lowering class sizes, but we need to have the financial means to do that," she said. "If the Legislature is going to pass this bill, they need to make sure they have financial support for each of the schools."

The idea of passing the class-size buck to junior highs and high schools presents challenges as well, particularly in light of recent state goals to better prepare students for college and careers. Many of Utah's high schools are already feeling the weight of bulging student populations.

In Logan, some upper-level advance placement classes have surpassed 50 students as the district has worked to bounce back from a reduction in personnel two years ago due to financial strains.

"It would be a financial impossibility without having an impact on upper levels," Garrett said of elementary class-size caps.

Based on the most recent class-size numbers from the Utah State Office of Education, Garrett estimated that meeting the 20-student kindergarten cap for Logan School District would require the hiring of three new teachers, for a combined cost of more than $200,000 in salary and benefits.

That cost, he said, would present a serious impact to the district without additional funds.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said the State School Board is very much in favor of efforts to reduce class sizes, but without additional funding, the bill would only shift a burden from one area of public education to another.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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