The Legislature should have passed SB31, a much-needed bill to shrink class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Instead, a coterie of Republicans in the Utah House derailed the bill with a lame excuse about fitting it into the budget.
The Senate passed Sen. Karen Morgan's bill 19-9, a substantial margin. Even Sen. Howard Stephenson, a perennial critic of new education spending on targeted programs, spoke in favor of the bill in committee. Still, voices like that of Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who obviously fails to see the connection between academic success and more one-on-one classroom instruction, carried the day. The committee killed SB31, not even allowing it to be debated on the House floor. That's a shameful display of partisan politics, and made worse by the desperate need for this legislation.
And this isn't the first year Morgan has been railroaded by rightist Republicans, although the bill this year had bipartisan support.
Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, was the House sponsor of the bill. She rightly pointed out that, though costly, the legislation was flexible enough to provide "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. That flexibility deflated the argument that the bill would force school districts to forgo spending on other programs.
SB31 would have begun 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 would cost schools millions and probably eat up all their allocations from the Legislature for class-size reduction overall.
But what better way to spend that money?
Morgan, who is a former high school teacher, understands that skills learned, or not learned, in the early grades are a huge determining factor in any child's ultimate academic success. That's when children must learn to read and do the simple math that forms the basis for all future course work. If children get a well-grounded foundation in the first four years of school, they can tolerate larger class sizes later on.
The early years in school are also important in helping minority and low-income children adapt to school and giving them the guidance they and their parents need to put them on the right academic track.
Kindergarten-through-third-grade classes that are crowded with 30 children and only one teacher are breeding grounds for failure.