Class size is one of Utahns' biggest complaints about their schools, with students sometimes crammed into rooms of 30 and even 40 kids.
It's not an easy issue to solve in a state with the lowest per-pupil funding in the nation but that doesn't mean lawmakers won't give it another try this year.
The House Education Committee is scheduled Monday to discuss HB318, which would cap class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The bill would limit kindergarten classes to 20 students starting next school year; first-grade classes to 22 students the next year; second-grade classes to 22 the year after that; and third-grade classes to 24 kids starting in the 2016-2017 school year.
Districts could meet those requirements by hiring more teachers or teacher's aides, known as paraprofessionals, to work with educators, driving down student-to-adult ratios.
Here's the catch: The bill would not give schools any additional money. Schools would be expected to use class size reduction money they already receive, and they could actually lose that money if they fail to shrink classrooms.
It's a strategy some say is long overdue, while others say it would put schools in a tight position, forcing them to make other cuts.
Bill sponsor Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, said reducing class sizes in the early grades is important if the state is going meet its educational goals.
"I think long before we have an educated workforce, much further upstream from that is a little kindergarten child coming into a class of 28 children versus a kindergarten child coming into a class of 20," Edwards said.
Edwards said her bill would hold schools accountable for using the funding they already receive more than $100 million this fiscal year to help reduce class sizes. A 2007 legislative audit showed that $460 million allocated 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.
Plus, she said, the class size reduction money school districts already get rises with per pupil spending, meaning schools will get more over time. And her bill would allow districts and charters to use some of those funds for construction to help further reduce class sizes.
But Kory Holdaway, with the Utah Education Association (UEA), said it concerns him that the bill doesn't include new money. The UEA has decided to support the bill only if it includes new money (which, at this point, it does not).
"That's assuming the class size reduction money hasn't already been used for hiring new personnel to fill the needs of prior years," Holdaway said of the plan to make districts use money they already receive. "It's an ongoing expense so it has to be used to continue to fund those reductions from previous years."
And the state school board nearly voted to oppose the bill at its meeting Thursday. Instead, the board also voted to support the bill but only with new money.
"I don't think there's any question that class sizes are a major issue," state Superintendent Martell Menlove told board members in explaining the measure. But he said it could cause school districts to have to make cuts in other areas, such as by increasing class sizes in upper grades.
"I think that concept means bigger 10th grade classes," board member Kim Burningham said.
The bill's fiscal note says that it could cost districts and charter schools between $4.1 million and $15.4 million next school year.
Edwards, however, said she feels that having to raise class sizes in upper grades would be worth lowering them in the early grades, where she said its perhaps more important.
Others, also concerned about accountability for existing funding, have pushed for similar bills for years. Still, some say it's time schools look for more innovative solutions for better educating kids, such as using technology and other tools.
"We really see the concept of class size reduction as an antiquated approach to improving student outcomes," said Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice In Education. "It's a 19th century solution for 21st century students."
The public hearing on Monday will be the bill's first this year.
Hear discussion about class-size reduction bill
The House Education Committee is scheduled to discuss and possibly vote Monday at 4 p.m. on a bill, HB318, that would cap class sizes in grades K-3. The hearing is in Room 30 of the House Building at the Utah Capitol Complex. Or click on the Audio/Video tab at le.utah.gov. By the numbers • Utah class size
Utah had the second highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in the nation in fall 2010. The state's 2012 median class size:
22 • kindergarten
23 • 1st grade
24 • 2nd grade
25 • 3rd grade
Sources: National Center for Education statistics; State Office of Education