Utah has a lot of school students. Lots of young families with children, new subdivisions and even migrations from Latin America account for the crowded schools. One example is Heritage Elementary School in Ogden. In just a year, the school has swelled to 873 students. That's almost as many students as attend Ben Lomond High School in Ogden.
In fact, portable classrooms dot most of the schools across the Top of Utah. We need every one.
Unfortunately, Utah's growth in school children will not be met by an appropriate increase in school funding. One reason for this is due to the Legislature's historical reluctance to move our state higher in per capita spending compared to other states. Utah is at the bottom when it comes to funding per pupil. Another reason is the recessionary econonomy. The Utah State Board of Education plans to submit a budget recommendation to legislators that is $300 million less than needed. The budget doesn't account for unfunded enrollment growth.
To get the $300 million it needs, education officials are hoping that the Legislature will fund at least $200 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund. Knowing our Legislature, we'd say that's quite a gamble. We hope that legislators will allocate that, though. Utah's children need an adequately funded school system. All those portables are worrisome. They are the only things preventing very excessive classroom sizes.
Whatever funding Utah schools manage to receive, it is imperative that class sizes not increase to levels where it creeps past 30 students and approaches 40. Studies have shown that smaller classes improve grades for students, particularly in the primary grades. Project Challenge in Tennessee, for example, improved grades for students whose class sizes were reduced. Also, more students passed their grade requirements under Project Challenge when class sizes were reduced.
The consistent budget woes that Utah schools face will require creative solutions. Even if schools receive $200 million in Rainy Day funds, we will still have an $100 million shortfall. To deal with that, schools will do what they have been doing; foregoing wage increases, cutting non-essential staff, slicing budgets and, unfortunately, increasing class sizes.
The Utah Legislature needs to step up its education funding. Being last in the nation is a disgrace. Gov. Gary Herbert must lead the effort to make sure that Utah kids are not denied a quality education. Maintaining learning-appropriate class sizes is a first priority.