The Senate passed a bill Wednesday to lower class sizes for young children, despite arguments from some that it could hurt schools because of the cost.
SB31 would cap class sizes at 20 students in kindergarten and at 22 students in first, second and third grades. Or, it would require teachers' aides, known as paraprofessionals, in larger classes.
"As we all know, the early grades are critical years in a child's education," said bill sponsor Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights. "These are the years a child learns foundational math and reading skills that will determine their future success."
A number of lawmakers also praised the bill because it would require schools to meet the new caps in order to continue receiving millions of dollars a year that have long been intended for class size reduction. 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.
Others, however, voiced concerns Wednesday over the proposal, which would not give schools any additional money, beyond what they already receive, to lower class sizes. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he worries that districts would have to take money from other areas to meet the caps, or that the Legislature would be expected in the future to set aside tens of millions in additional dollars to help districts do that, diverting money that went to other things.
Lowering class sizes can be an expensive proposition. It cost the Davis School District about $2.5 million just to reduce average class sizes by one student in kindergarten through third grade this school year.
"This will require that districts cannabalize every other department to meet a state mandate," Thatcher said.
Utah Education Association president Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said after the hearing that UEA supports the bill and would also like to see more money put toward class size reduction. Morgan said after the debate Wednesday that she hopes for increases to base per pupil funding and the current allocation for class size reduction.
Now, 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. 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.
The bill now moves to the House.