Revised class-size reduction bill gets committee approval

Published: Tuesday, March 5 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, said her new bill is designed to gather the necessary information to help policymakers understand how funds are being used and what class-size reduction steps can be taken in the future. She said the bill ties funding to the submission of a report and plan, but it does not make changes to how the funding can be spent.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A class-size reduction bill that effectively died in committee due to lack of funding was resurrected Tuesday, albeit in a wholly different form.

Gone are the class-size caps in kindergarten through third grade that educators say would be impossible without either millions of dollars in additional funding or, without funding, causing a negative impact on upper-level class sizes.

In their place is a substitute HB318, which requires schools to submit a plan for the class-size reduction money they are currently receiving and report on how those funds are used. The bill advanced in a 9-2 vote by the House Education Committee.

"It's an incremental step toward gaining an understanding of current class-size funding," bill sponsor Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, said of her substitute bill.

Schools have received class-size reduction funds for the last two decades, but lawmakers often complain about a lack of accountability on how that funding is being used to shrink class sizes.

Edward's original bill, as well as a bill that failed during last year's legislative session, would have tied those funds to class-size caps, which were set one to two students lower than the state's current median class sizes.

But that meant schools would not only have to shrink class sizes without the assistance of new money, but would be faced with financial penalties for failing to meet the threshold.

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

Edwards said her new bill is designed to gather the necessary information to help policymakers understand how funds are being used and what class-size reduction steps can be taken in the future. She said the bill ties funding to the submission of a report and plan, but it does not make changes to how the funding can be spent.

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. Utah's charter schools have a higher median class size than the state as a whole, with 23 students in kindergarten and 26 students in the first, second and third grades.

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.

Schools received $108 million of class-size reduction funds this year, without which education officials say the median class size would be roughly three students higher than its current level.

Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis School Board, said he supported the substitute bill but cautioned lawmakers that the reports from school districts would likely be subjective. Without going back and reporting on the years before class-size reduction money was first appropriated, it will be difficult to demonstrate the results of decades-long class-size reduction efforts, he said.

"A teacher is a teacher whether they're funded with class-size reduction funding or not," Cannon said.

Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said the reports would add to future discussions of class sizes in the state but that lawmakers should not necessarily expect to be able to make value judgements based on the information. 

Pattie Harrington, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, spoke in favor of the bill, saying parents, educators and lawmakers alike support the goal of smaller classes.

"We understand, as do our public in the state of Utah, that class-size makes a difference," she said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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