By MATT SMITH
The $1.6 billion Minimum School Program Act passed this month by Utah lawmakers will allow the Utah State Board of Education to pump $55 million into Utah’s elementary schools to help reduce class size.
According to state education officials and national education publications, this has been a big problem for Utah in the past.
“Utah has consistently ranked last in the nation in per-pupil spending, but its students perform admirably on standardized tests,” said Mark Walsh of Education Week.
Walsh said the reason students perform well, despite the low ranking of per-pupil spending, is because of “the significant portion of residents who are Mormons, who tend to value education.”
Now it looks like Utah will be moving up in the national rankings for education.
Laurie Chivers, deputy superintendent from the Utah State Office of Education, said the Minimum School Program Act will allow a 3 percent increase in the value weighted pupil unit, which is the basic formula for school funding in Utah.
This 3 percent increase will allow each student to be valued at $1,791, and additional money will be given to special education students and other students with special needs.
Chivers said the main problem in trying to pass the bill is a debate about how much money would be put into the class size reduction program.
The bill was finally pushed through with an agreement to phase out a 20 percent rule by the year 2000.
Eighteen percent of the $55 million will be used for class size reduction in the 1997-98 school year, 12 percent in the 1998-99 school year and 5 percent in the 1999-2000 school year.
The bill also includes $26.3 million for building schools.
Chivers said the areas that suffered the most significant budget cuts were inservice programs (66 percent), Educational Technology Initiative (54 percent), FACT (69 percent) and English as a Second Language (34 percent).
Utah’s student-teacher ratio was 23.6-to-1 in 1995-96, well above the 17.3-to-1 national ratio — second only to California’s, according to Education Week. That translates into class sizes of 30 or more students for half the state’s teachers of grades 4-6.