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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Shelli Arthur teaches her first-grade class about conjunctions at Oak Hills Elementary School in Bountiful on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. Oak Hills recently dropped its average first-grade class size from 30 students to 19.
It's amazing when we can differentiate the instruction, which we can with smaller classes —Julie Larsen, principal at Oak Hills Elementary in the Davis School District.

» View our Utah politics blog, with live updates and analysis of the 2012 legislative sessions.

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Karen Morgan wasted no time on the first day of the 2012 legislative session in unveiling a bill that would place caps on elementary class sizes. 

Morgan's SB31 would put into statute a limit on the number of students per teacher in kindergarten through third grades and would be phased in over the next four years. 

"That concern is always in my mind: how large our class sizes are," the Cottonwood Heights Democrat told the Senate Education Committee, which unanimously advanced the bill Monday to the full Senate. "It's become worse over the last several years. … We have not had the money to fund enrollment growth." 

Morgan's bill would limit the number of students in a kindergarten class to 18 as early as this fall. The following year, a first-grade cap of 20 would go into effect. A second-grade cap of 22 would go into effect beginning with the 2014-15 school year, with a third-grade cap of 24 going into effect in fall 2015. The bill would allow districts to hire full-time paraprofessionals, like trained teachers aides, to assist teachers when districts are unable decrease class size due to budget or building constraints.

"The ideal is to have an actual class with those lower numbers … but I understand the realities that we face in our state," Morgan, a former high school teacher, said. "I've tried to put together a bill that I believe is reasonable."

Utah is one of only 15 states and the District of Columbia that do not have class-size caps in place, Morgan told the committee. 

But lawmakers have appropriated millions of dollars toward class-size reduction since  1993, when the Legislature allocated $4.3 million toward the effort. That commitment has steadily increased to $103.5 million last year. That's on top of a property tax program, to which the state contributes, intended to help local school districts hire more teachers and paraprofessionals.

Some lawmakers have been leery of the large commitment in recent years, prompting a 2007 legislative audit to examine how the money was being spent at the school level. Some conservative lawmakers cite studies showing student achievement doesn't notably increase until class sizes are reduced to 15 students — something they say is unrealistic given Utah's growing enrollment. The Utah Taxpayers Association has come out against Morgan's bill for that reason.

Teachers and administrators say the results are undeniable.

"It's amazing when we can differentiate the instruction, which we can with smaller classes," said Julie Larsen, principal at Oak Hills Elementary in the Davis School District.

Davis raised taxes last year to the tune of $8.5 million, $2.5 million of which went to hiring more teachers so class sizes in select grades could be reduced. The tax increase meant adding more teachers at 31 different elementary schools, including Oak Hills, where first-grade classes dropped from 30 students per classroom to 19. Although they've only had the smaller class sizes since the beginning of the school year, Larsen said she's already seen improved reading scores.

"I just can't say enough about it," Larsen said. "It makes a difference." 

Particularly in the early grades, where children are still getting used to the structure of the school day, smaller class sizes matter, Larsen said.

"They're 6. They're really pretty needy still. It's hard when you've got 30 needy first-graders to give them the attention they need," she said. "It's just impossible."

Morgan's bill has a fiscal note of $12.6 million for the first year of implementation — enough money to provide a paraprofessional to all 500 kindergarten classrooms in the state. At full implementation, it would cost $22 million to hire paraprofessionals for classes in kindergarten through third grades.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he supports the bill and would like to see it integrated even if funding for it isn't available this year. 

"If we're not able to get this fiscal note funded, we ought to push the bill forward anyway and begin to impose a standard for these grades that you have identified," Stephenson said. He suggested that since districts already receive state dollars for class-size reduction, there ought to be a standard in place to ensure they actually do it. 

Davis County resident Ron Mortensen said there needs to be funding in place at the legislative level so taxes aren't raised at the district level to fund the statute.

"If you do this, make sure that there's funding and that you're not supporting an indirect tax increase," Mortensen said. 

The committee approved Morgan's bill unanimously. It will now head to the Senate floor before heading to the House.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer