One of the longtime complaints public school advocates have about Utah’s education system is large class sizes. Utah often ranks near the bottom of the nation when it comes to the pupils per teacher ratio. In the 2007-08 school year, for example, the US Department of Education estimated that the average class size for an elementary class in Utah was 24 students per student, placing us at just ahead of Michigan (24.5 students per elementary class) and 50th in the United States for class size (if we include Washington DC). This is well above the national average of 20 elementary students per class room and miles behind number one, North Dakota, which only averages 16.4 students per class room. However, during this same time, Utah SAT scores in both verbal and math have stayed above the national average, allowing many elected officials to maintain that the status quo is working – promoting the unofficial mantra “stack em’ deep and teach em’ cheap”.
What this argument fails to recognize is that, although it is true Utah test scores remain above national averages, they have steadily been decreasing over the years. For example, in 1996 the average verbal SAT score was 583 and the average math score was 575 – in 2005 verbal was down to 566 and math was down to 557.
Class size is not everything when it comes to test scores, but it is without question a contributing factor. As class sizes go up, individual attention goes down – as individual attention goes down, academic problems increase – as academic problems increase, acting out and attention seeking increases – as acting out and attention seeking increases, individual attention goes down. The cycle is a vicious one, and one that many teachers will attest to. Of course even in the smallest classes teachers can have difficulty reaching out to their students, but the problem is compounded more children are crammed into a class room.
In an effort to counteract these efforts, Representative Rebecca Edwards (Republican, North Salt Lake) has proposed HB 318 – Classroom Size Revisions. The bill, in short, would cap class sizes for students in grades K-3. If Edwards’ bill were to pass, no kindergarten class could have more than 20 students starting in the 2013-14 school year. By the 2014-15 school year, no first grade class could have more than 22 students, likewise in the 2015-16 school year, a second grade class could have more than 22 students. By the time the 2016-17 comes around, no third grade class could have more than 24 students in it. In other words, the bill ensures that at the very least, students have access to lower class sizes at the start of their academic career in hopes that they have a greater opportunity to develop good habits early, rather than falling through the cracks before they have a chance.
As of this writing, the bill has no fiscal note – though this will undoubtedly change in the coming days. Currently the state appropriates some funds towards class size reductions, however these funds are at the whim of the overall budget. If this bill were to pass and lawmakers failed to appropriate the necessary funds to cover any added costs of hiring new teachers, the state has basically placed an unfunded mandate upon the school districts, and serious decisions will need to be made in school budgets to ensure that enough proper personnel exist to meet state mandates.
In the end, this bill is a tricky one. If it were to pass and is not funded, schools are in an even tougher spot – if an amendment is made to add a fail-safe to ensure that school districts’ budgets are not harmed in the event the legislature decides not to fund lower class sizes, the legislature has no incentive to actually fund reductions. Of course in an ideal world, the budget would allow smaller class sizes and none of this would be a concern in the first place.
Overall, this bill is a possible win for schools, but if it passes, lawmakers must make the decision to properly fund it.
To contact Rep. Edwards, Click Here or call 801-554-1968
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Great Bill 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 . -1 . -2 . -3 . -4 . -5 Poor Bill