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Lawmaker wants to shrink Utah’s crowded classrooms

Sen. Karen Morgan has a plan she thinks will work.

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Sen. Karen Morgan doesn’t want to run for governor, she just wants to start a revolution in Utah’s public education system — one classroom at a time.

Her SB31 would limit the number of students in lower grades under the idea that Kindergarten through third grade are the most critical in a child’s education, including mastering the fundamental skill of reading.

At a glance

Reducing class size

PSB31 » The bill would require that school districts cap kindergarten classes at 20 students beginning next fall. The legislation then would phase in limits for first, second and third grades.

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"Reading is the foundation of learning," Morgan says. "If children can read, they can have success."

It’s a philosophy that the Cottonwood Heights Democrat has subscribed to for a long time, and has been working toward turning into bipartisan legislation for years.

It was during her time teaching high school that Morgan discovered that some of her students were still unable to read. And in many cases that could have been overcome had the students had more one-on-one attention in the early grades.

"That’s when," she said, "the light dawned for me."

She hopes she can help her colleagues on Capitol Hill to see the light, too.

Her SB31 would begin a phased-in cap of 20 students per class in kindergarten beginning next fall. The following year, first grade would be capped at 22, followed by second grade (also at 22) the subsequent year and third grade (23 student cap) the next.

"It provides a soft cap feature, so if [districts] can’t hire an additional teacher or build an extra classroom, they can hire a [teacher’s aide]," said Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, House sponsor of the bill.

The state’s median class sizes currently are 22 for kindergarten, 23 for first grade, 24 for second grade and 25 for third grade, according to the State Office of Education. Utah had the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation — 27 students per teacher — in 2008-09, the most recent numbers available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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The bill has a price tag of $3.6 million, though some lawmakers worry the program would obligate the state to much higher costs in the future.

But Edwards and Morgan say their legislation wouldn’t increase the financial burden beyond the class-size reduction funding already built into the budget over years. Under SB31, districts would lose this funding if they didn’t meet the cap requirements — an accountability mechanism not previously used for the class-size reduction budget.

In fact, a 2007 legislative audit showed that $460 million meant to make class sizes smaller in Utah over seven years hadn’t led to any change, though some have said class sizes would have been even larger if not for that money.

"This bill has something for everyone," Edwards said. "It has financial accountability, for people who care about the budget, and people who care about education and reducing class sizes will be interested in getting behind it, as well."

The State Board of Education and the Utah Education have backed the measure. So now has the Utah Senate, which passed it on a vote of 19-9. It’s now awaiting action in the House.

Senate Majority Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, was among those voting against the measure saying while he supports the effort to get class size under control he worries supporters are "expecting an allocation from surplus funds," which could derail the initiative.

But Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, supported the bill — saying it was just one more show of commitment to education from the Legislature.

With billions of dollars in state tax dollars going to Utah schools, lawmakers have consistently shown it as their No. 1 priority, he said.

Morgan is consistently one of the most outspoken among lawmakers for increased funding and attention to education.

It’s one of the reasons Democrats courted her as a possible candidate for governor this year.

"She represents so many things and attributes that make a good gubernatorial candidate and a good governor," said Jim Dabakis, Utah Democratic Party chairman. "She is standing up like a beacon and speaking the truth about education."

Despite being honored by the consideration, Morgan declined to jump in the race against Gov. Gary Herbert. Instead, she will stay in the Legislature and continue pushing for education.

Lisa Schencker contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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