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Call for smaller classes stalls for lack of funding

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."

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.