Proposed bill will put a cap on class sizes

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Many years ago, there was a slogan about Utah’s class sizes: We stack ‘em deep and we teach ‘em cheap. Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake City,  is hoping to pass a bill that will keep this slogan a thing of the past.

Morgan has proposed a class size amendment, SB31, that will impose a maximum class size for kindergarten through third grade statewide.  As of Feb. 17, the bill had passed the Senate and awaits a hearing in a Utah House committee.

Morgan said the main reason for this bill is because class sizes across the Wasatch Front are too large and the best way to lower them is to put a cap on kindergarten through third grade.

“Early grades are the most important years for building a foundation for reading and math,” Morgan said. “If they have those basic skills by third grade, they are more likely to be successful in later years.”

Morgan hopes to phase this program in within the next four years, starting with all kindergarten classes in Utah this coming school year.

“We’re phasing it in because I know it’s going to be massive and not an easy thing to do, but it’s really important,” Morgan said.

Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake and the bill’s House sponsor, said studies and statistics have shown that reading on grade level by the time a student is in third grade can predict everything from success in sixth grade to high school graduation and more.

“When prisons are looking at anticipating their future numbers, they look at third-grade reading scores because there is such a correlation in being able to read in third grade to high-school dropouts and eventually prison inmates,” Edwards said.

According to Edwards and Morgan, there are already 36 states across the country that have enacted cap-sizes in their younger elementary school grades.

Edwards said legislators have looked at other states (like Florida) that have improved their education with reform programs.  She said putting a cap on class sizes in kindergarten through third grade has been successful in the states that have already implemented it.

Dean Nielsen, principal at Rock Canyon Elementary in Provo, said while he is excited to see the government move forward with class size reduction, he hopes the funding will be there.

“I’m excited they’re wanting to make it an announcement, but I’d love to see dollars behind it to make it a stronger case for our children in Utah,” Nielsen said.

Edwards said there is currently $103 million appropriated every year for Utah’s budget for class size reduction.  She said there is no fiscal note on this bill because there is already money for class sizes and this will provide accountability to make sure the money is used for its intended purpose.

“This is a way to ensure the money given every year is used for [class size reduction],” Edwards said.

Nielsen said his school uses every penny allotted to it by the state to reduce the size of classes.

“Some of the legislators don’t think we use that money,” Nielsen said. “But we use it faithfully to hire aides or a teacher or two.  I can promise you in Provo we are using that money for what it’s appropriated for and we are grateful for it.”

With a limited budget, Nielsen said he was only able to hire one teacher and an aide this past year.  He said while his school has had bigger classes, it has done its best to make up for it.

“We’ve had higher class sizes, but we know the kids and teachers need additional help so we’ve tried to get aides and additional hands to lessen the class size ration,” Nielsen said.

Morgan amended the bill so that if the school is unable to hire another full-time teacher, or, because of space limitations, cannot fit another classroom, it is able to hire a “paraprofessional” or teacher aide to help and work under the direction of the classroom teacher.

Morgan realizes not every school will be able to follow the exact guidelines from the get-go, but this bill is more about the children than anything else.

“I think little children need to have more individualized attention,” Morgan said. “Especially when they’re small and just coming into kindergarten. I think they need that extra help and extra time. It will provide what they need.”

Nielsen said he thought of the bill as more than just a cause.

“It’s an investment rather than a cause,” Nielsen said. “An investment to the future of our community, state and nation.”

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