Lawmakers argue about classroom size cap

Jan 24 2012 - 12:13am

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill to reduce class size in grades K-3 has been passed on to the state Senate for consideration.

Members of the Senate Education Standing Committee argued the merits of setting classroom sizes for the early grades and establishing enrollment caps. The bill, SB 31, would establish standards that include 18 students for kindergarten, 20 for first grade, 22 for second grade and 24 students in third grade.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Whip Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake, will now go to the Senate for consideration. Morgan said classroom enrollment caps are already in place in 36 states.

Even with favorable support of the committee, lawmakers admit the bill faces some economic hurdles.

Lawmakers have identified new sources of revenue this year, estimated to be more than $400 million, some of which may help fund education initiatives.

"I agree K-3 is the most critical time. My one question, with the limited resources we have, is this the best fit for every school? Do we want to specifically say you must fund this program or let them address what they think is the most important?" asked Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

Not everyone is convinced the cap is the right approach to take on the issue.

Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis County School Board, suggested that setting standards for class size is not as important as initiating performance pay for teachers and giving local districts control of funding to improve the quality of education.

"Classroom size is easy to measure, but it's really hard to measure teacher quality. I would make an argument for local control," Cannon told members of the committee.

Ron Mortensen, of Bountiful, argued that any move to set class size limits must be accompanied by requisite funding, otherwise it becomes a mechanism for school boards to pass on a tax increase to local taxpayers.

Judy Clark, of Parents For Education, worried that focusing on classroom numbers too easily becomes a "one size fits all" approach to education. She suggested educators and lawmakers need to look at innovative ways to address the issue.

Kory Holdaway, director of government relations for the Utah Education Association, said the UEA supports the move towards classroom caps and that it is a step forward.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, agrees with the need to address early grades.

"I think you're right on where we're headed with this. Putting money into early grades makes a lot of sense, rather in the remedial grades," Stevenson said. He said he can support the measure as long as the Legislature can fund it.

The bill includes some language which would allow for paraprofessionals in the lower grades, instead of requiring districts to hire full-time teachers.

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