A frustrated mom or dad confronts a legislator and he just quotes how much cash the state has put into lowering the number of kids in the overcrowded classroom and, perhaps, a vote can be saved.
But GOP House members and a dozen or so Republican legislative candidates were told Wednesday that the state’s class size reduction program is basically a sham.
For some time the “unrestricted” monies given to local school districts and charter schools has been going into those entities general fund accounts, with little or no real class size reduction coming from it.
CSR monies are not wasted. They are just going into other areas where local education administrators feel there is greater need – which could be teacher salaries, supplies, bus service and so on.
This is not groundbreaking news. Various legislative audits over the years, since the first real CSR plan was first started in 1997, have shown similar results.
But Wednesday House GOP leaders want to brief their incumbents seeking re-election in two months and give their GOP candidates some background so they can fight against Democratic challengers who seem to be hitting the GOP majority hard on rising class sizes.
As kids go back to school this fall, and parents find larger classes than their little ones had last year, frustration grows.
“Many of our caucus members are concerned” about how they are being attacked by challenging Democrats, said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace.
“I can tell you we fully funded growth” in student populations “this year, and we put $25 million more” in education budgets in a summer special session, he added. So public education has been treated well in recent budgets.
“I want you to have answers” to some of the questions Democratic candidates and parents are throwing at the incumbents, he added.
“You may here some of this in your debates” with other candidates “or in door-to-door” meetings with voters.
In the fiscal 2012-13 school year, legislators put $126 million into the class size reduction program.
That sounds like a healthy number.
Unfortunately, said legislative fiscal analyst Ben Leishman, few if any school districts or charter schools can tell you exactly how that money is reducing class sizes.
“How those funds are used – they are unrestricted monies – are totally up to the local boards,” he said.
The theory, said House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Kamas, was when the CSR plan was started back when, 2nd-graders would get so much cash statewide. And local districts would decide how to reduce the numbers in their 2nd grades.
More money would be given next year so that incoming class of 2nd graders would still have a lower class size. And then the now-3rd graders would have a small class and on and on until those original kids reached the 8th grade – each year the class sizes would fall further.
But like many plans that sound good, troubled economic times and other state growing needs stopped legislators from doubling the CSR monies year after year.
Instead, each year about the same amount was given. So, obviously, in districts with growing student populations, the CSR monies, while certainly appreciated, didn’t keep up.
And in growing districts class sizes went up, anyway.
Except in really hard economic times, CSR monies did increase a bit year over year. But it hasn’t been enough.
“Class sizes have been going up from 2010 to 2011,” said Leishman, the last year available.
In growing districts, 2nd graders may have seen one or two more kids per class, he added.
Now, while Democrats may make some hay on that issue, what they can’t argue (even though some of them are) is that spending on public education has gone down as a percent of the overall budget, the caucus was told.
In 2007, said Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, spending on public education was 43 percent of the state budget.
By 2013 it had grown to between 50 percent and 51 percent, about where it has been historically.
It is well known that Utah spends less per student than any other state in the nation.
Years ago that didn’t seem to matter as much, because Utah students – for a variety of reasons – still did very well on test scores, college admissions and other measures of smarts.
But recently Utah students have been falling behind, various comparisons show.
“We can’t really say (that CSR monies) does in fact reduce class size over what would have happened” without the program at all, said Leishman, assuming those CSR funds would just have gone to local districts anyway.
That’s because most school districts are dumping their CSR monies into their general funds, out of which general expenses are paid, like teacher and administrator salaries, supplies, etc.
The last few years, said Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, GOP legislators have been looking to simplify and consolidate state funds going to school districts and charter schools – looking more toward bloc granting the monies.
Unfortunately, when you say you want to do away with the specific CSR monies, parents and some administrators panic.
“There’s a component here we don’t touch – building schools,” said House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
For the most part, school districts build new schools through bonding, supported by property taxes. If you want to reduce class size, you may have to build new classrooms, or new whole schools. And that is not the Legislature’s responsibility.
“Do we want to become a super school board, telling all the locals how to spend it all? Or do we leave it up to local control? Do we start bloc granting those monies?”
For years GOP lawmakers have complained that they get blamed for anything bad that happens in the schools, like growing class size, when in fact they have little or no control over those issues.
The special class size reduction appropriations have been a way to assuage some of those complaints, founded or not.
“In reality,” said Newbold, the Legislature’s supposed earmarking of class size reduction monies has “not made that much of a difference in the lives of students.”