Parents would see fewer students in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms under a proposed bill that earned preliminary approval Monday from the Senate Education Committee.
SB31, which the committee unanimously passed on to the full Senate, would limit the number of students in academic classes to 18 in kindergarten, 20 in first grade, 22 in second grade and 24 in third grade. But schools unable to meet the requirement, possibly due to limited classrooms, could instead hire teachers' aides, known as paraprofessionals.
Sen. Karen Morgan, the Cottonwood Heights Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said she gets calls from parents every fall who are shocked to find their child's kindergarten class has upward of 30 students.
"The most critical time to have a smaller class size is in those early grades where children are building a foundation for learning," she told the committee, noting that 36 states limit class sizes. "We should not be one of the 14 states plus the District of Columbia that doesn't have some kind of a cap on enrollment."
But she acknowledged it will be challenging to find the ongoing funds needed to hire more teachers. The cost of meeting the smaller class sizes has not yet been calculated.
This year, the Davis School District spent $2.5 million, using a property-tax hike, to cover a one-student reduction in average K-3 class sizes.
Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis school board, questioned whether the bill takes flexibility away from school districts. Cannon, who was not speaking on behalf of the Davis board, said the money might be better spent on improving teacher quality through a performance-pay system.
"We in the school districts know how to help our students," Cannon said. "We don't need to be told to help our students the way every other school district does."
The state's median class sizes are 22 for kindergarten, 23 for first grade, 24 for second grade and 25 for third grade, according to the State Office of Education.
During the same meeting, the committee also passed SB39, which would give the governor greater power in hiring and firing the state's commissioner of higher education and the president of the Utah College of Applied Technology.
"The aim of this is to try to allow the governor to encourage coordination between the three silos of education," said sponsor Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, referring to higher education, the applied technology colleges and public education.
The State Board of Regents would still select the state's higher-education commissioner, and the UCAT board of trustees would still choose a president. But their selections would have to be approved by the governor and the Senate.
The governor could fire either appointee after consulting with the respective board.
Reid said Gov. Gary Herbert supports the bill.