The Salt Lake City School District board has a chance to make a lasting difference in the lives of children who attend elementary school in the capital city.
Because of decreasing debt payments, the board will have $6.8 million more in its budget next year. It is considering several ways to use the money, including shrinking class sizes in fourth through sixth grade. While the other options – making all-day kindergarten more widely available, giving employees a 1 percent raise or giving the money back to taxpayers – all have their appeal, creating more teachable classes is the best choice.
Polls show Utahns would accept a tax hike to help their neighborhood public schools. In Salt Lake City, they now have that chance. Lowering class size by a single student in all grades across the district would cost about $2.25 million.
Some research indicates the link between smaller class sizes and improved learning is inconclusive. One major Tennessee study conducted in the 1980s found that K-3 classes of 13 to 17 students outperformed classes of 22 to 26 students.
However, we’re unaware of studies that look specifically at schools rivaling Utah’s in class size and lack of funding to hire aides and help teachers in other ways. Utah has, by far, the lowest tax expenditure per child for education of any state.
As of 2010, Utah had an average ratio of 22.8 students per teacher compared with 16 students nationwide. Many classes are considerably larger than the average, especially in fourth through sixth grade. The Legislature has shown some willingness to allocate money for kindergarten, but class-size reduction seems beyond legislators’ comprehension.
If legislators who downplay the importance of class size were to spend some time in those larger classes, they would come to realize what is obvious to most parents and educators. When there are two dozen students, and sometimes even more, in an elementary-school class, a lone teacher spends far too much time simply keeping order.
Meeting the divergent needs of non-traditional learners, students with disabilities, whose family situations detract from school achievement or who continually need to be challenged, can be impossible in such a setting. Even if our teachers were not among the lower-paid in Western states, that’s expecting too much.
Trying to teach children in overcrowded classes without financial support from the Legislature is simply too frustrating for Utah educators, who leave the profession or move to other states in droves during the first five years of their employment.
The Salt Lake City School Board is uniquely able right now to improve the situation and give kids a long-term boost toward better lives. It should do so.