CAROL’S SUMMARY: Education budget cuts will most likely equate to elimination of jobs and less teachers means larger class sizes. Educators and teachers both agree that larger classes result in lower quality education.
Questions to consider:
1. How many students are in your child’s class?
Educators say almost any drop in funding will mean more kids per teacher
By Lisa Schencker
Jennifer Flitton doesn’t teach her 25 sixth-graders about the science of heat by just opening a textbook. The Eastwood Elementary School teacher gives them feathers, cork, packing foam, hot water and thermometers and tells them to decide for themselves which material acts as the best insulator.
But Flitton doesn’t let her students perform the experiment every year. When her classes are too large, she demonstrates and they watch.
“When I have 33 kids it’s not nearly as easy,” Flitton said. “I don’t feel it’s as safe when I can’t get around to see what everyone’s doing.”
Flitton, like many teachers and parents, worries that large cuts to the state’s education budget might mean heftier class sizes and lower quality education. If lawmakers cut as much from education as they’ve been talking about lately — up to 15 percent next school year — the cuts are bound to affect teacher pay.
To cut teacher pay, districts would either have to slash salaries, reduce the number of school days or eliminate positions, which would increase class sizes.
“The majority of every dollar is classes and goes to people,” said McKell Withers, Salt Lake City School District superintendent. “The reality is there are not other places where you can reduce the budget in huge, singular ways.”
As many as 371 teaching positions statewide could be lost for every 1 percent cut to the Minimum School Program, which makes up most of the state’s education budget, according to legislative fiscal analysts. Each 1 percent could mean an increase in student-teacher ratios by nearly half a student.
Utah rules in class size » Utah already has some of the largest class sizes in the nation.
Last year, the state’s median class size for sixth grade was 25 students. The median teacher to student ratio for all grades was nearly 1:23, according to the State Office of Education.
Some districts worry the potential cuts could force them to undo years of work to whittle down class sizes.
Each year, districts get money from the state to help them with class sizes. In 2008, they got $82.3 million.
A legislative audit released in 2007, however, showed that the state money is only enough — in the face of growing enrollment — to keep class sizes steady, not reduce them.
That’s why some districts spend their own money to reduce class sizes. This school year the Jordan School District spent $1.7 million to reduce its third-grade classes by one student and its seventh and eighth grade classes by 0.8 students.
To reduce all classes in all grades by just one student would cost the district $7.7 million, said Melinda Colton, district spokeswoman.
“What we worry about now with the budget cuts is that’s going to be cut all in one fell swoop,” Colton said.
From 2004 to 2008, the Davis School District reduced its student to teacher ratios by an average of nearly 0.8 students despite rapidly growing enrollment. To reduce ratios by one full student across the district would cost $6.3 million a year.
“We certainly can [avoid affecting] the classroom this fiscal year, but next fiscal year we might have no alternative,” said Chris Williams, district spokesman.
Parents say they hope state budget cuts don’t come to that.
“If you get too many kids in a classroom, you lose kids’ attention,” said Sunnie Cummings, who has a second-grader and a fourth-grader at William Penn Elementary School in East Millcreek.
But she said she doesn’t know where else districts should chop in the event of a 15 percent cut.
“I don’t think there’s any room to cut from education,” Cummings said. “It’s the most important thing our kids need.”
Save teachers, cut staff? » William Penn parent Bonnie Burton said she’d like to see districts and lawmakers first look at cutting administrators.
But educators say it’s not just a matter of cutting administrative positions or salaries.
“Even if we were to lay off everyone in the district office it wouldn’t amount to 4 percent of our budget,” Williams said of the Davis district, which is the third largest in the state.
Rural Box Elder School District would have to lay off 27 district-level administrators to meet the 15 percent figure, said Ron Frandsen, Box Elder business administrator. The district, however, only has 10 such employees.
Frandsen said if budget cuts hit 15 percent in 2010 it could mean about 2.5 more students per class in the district’s secondary schools. That would bring the average class size up to about 30 in the district’s secondary schools, he said.
He said that would affect how students learn — a common sentiment among teachers and parents.
“If you cut personnel you have to increase class size, and that impacts the quality of education,” said Kim Campbell, Utah Education Association president. “It becomes this domino effect.”
She said education is key to the state economy’s eventual recovery.
“Coming out on the other side of the recession, we want to have an educated work force in place,” she said.
For now, Campbell said the UEA is urging lawmakers to explore using Rainy Day Fund money or issuing bonds to minimize cuts to education.
Lawmakers are working on ways to keep as much money in education as possible.
Legislative leaders decided Friday to minimize cuts to education this year by giving schools money from other places in the budget. If that proposal goes through, districts won’t likely have to cut teachers or increase class sizes this school year.
Cuts for 2010, however, are still up in the air.
Flitton, like many others, is hoping for the best.
“One or two [more] kids makes a difference,” Flitton said.