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Proposal to reduce class size will not target middle grades

A Utah County lawmaker has carved the "middle" out of the $13.6 million proposal to reduce class sizes in Utah's middle schools.

Rep. Jeff Alexander, R-Orem, amended HB182 Tuesday to remove any language that directs school districts to target the class-size reduction funds specifically to the seventh and eighth grades.In a House floor debate, Alexander argued the Legislature shouldn't tell school districts how best to use class-size reduction monies.

Some districts may put their share of the $13.6 million into middle schools. Others may want it in grade schools, said Alexander. The amendment barely passed, 40-33.

"I'll still vote for this bill," said Rep. Michael Styler, R-Delta, after Alexander's amendment passed. Styler, who teaches the eighth grade in his hometown, added: "But it's a bad amendment. We need this help" in the middle schools and junior highs.

How long Alexander's amendment will last is debatable. Gov. Mike Leavitt specifically asked lawmakers for the $13.6 million for smaller classes in middle schools. And Leavitt rarely loses anything in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

"My concern is we protect the money. I still think it ought to go there (middle schools) as a first priority," Leavitt said Wednesday morning, noting that the Legislature's Education Interim Committee and the state education coalition consider middle schools their top concern.

"I don't think we've seen the last of this."

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, said the greatest overcrowding is in middle schools. Many high school kids get release time and so aren't taking full loads of classes. And grade schools have benefitted from class- size reduction programs, she said.

But rural, conservative lawmakers joined up with urbanites whose districts want flexibility in spending the money, and Alexander's amendment passed.

Middle-level educators have long contended that junior high class sizes need to be smaller to better serve the unique learning needs of young adolescents.

"The middle level is where students make life-altering decisions," said Mary Kay Kirkland, principal of Alice Harris Intermediate School in the Box Elder School District and Utah's 1997 National Distinguished Principal.

"It's where we're starting to lose kids. It's so important to connect to the faculty and other students at the middle level, the foundation for the high school years."

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, would have required schools to submit plans drafted by parents, administrators and teachers for funding uses, such as in interdisciplinary teaching teams.

As drafted, the bill contemplated reducing middle school class sizes by up to three students.