by Howard Stephenson

The Legislative Auditor General released his audit results in December on the use of nearly ¾ billion dollars appropriated by the Legislature since 1993 to reduce the average class size in Utah.  Unfortunately, the Auditor General’s audit didn’t look at trends in class sizes and in fact reported no data on average class sizes – not even in grades K-2 were at least 50% of the money was supposed to be spent.  How do you have a class size audit without examining class sizes?
The report disclosed that since 1993 Class Size Reduction (CSR) money has increased to its current amount for 2007 of $74 million, enabling the hiring of 1,117 more teachers than would otherwise have been in Utah classrooms.  The only class size data in the report was in State Superintendent Patti Harrington’s formal response to the audit: “The national average is 15.8 students per teacher while Utah is at 22.6 students per teacher.”

The report also showed that loose controls at the district level made it difficult to determine whether the money was spend properly: “While all districts report using CSR funds almost exclusively for teacher compensation, we could not always verify this. Twenty-two of forty school districts commingled their CSR revenues with other education revenues and have not tracked CSR funds to expenditures. Consequently, for these districts we were unable to independently validate whether CSR funds have been spent either appropriately or inappropriately,” the report stated.
Ever since the report was unveiled the pundits have been wringing their hands. Apparently to everyone’s surprise and dismay, Utah class sizes are still the largest in the nation. For anyone even vaguely familiar with Utah, this audit only confirmed what we and many in the business community have said for years about Utah education: class size reduction is an unrealistic goal in Utah.
The educational merits or demerits of class size reduction have been debated for years.  A study I recommend for review is from Stanford’s Hoover Institution which can be found online at   Parents intuitively prefer smaller classes, but the large scale tests of class size reduction show little improvement in student achievement unless average class size gets down to about 15. The cost of achieving that average class size would be monumental. And there are a host of other education proven reforms that would provide much larger gains in student achievement at a fraction of the cost.

Utah’s class sizes are already largest in the nation. In addition, Utah classrooms will swell by more than 160,000 over the next decade. On top of that, published reports indicate that Utah began the current school year with hundreds of vacant teaching slots.

This teacher shortage means that Utah’s current average salary and benefits package of $55,034 per year is not attracting enough applicants to meet existing demand. Those vacant teaching positions, plus the others necessary to bring Utah’s average class size to 15, would be even more expensive. For illustration purposes, however, we’ll assume the cost only goes up to $60,000. That means Utah would have to spend another $516 million every year just to hire the 8,600 teachers necessary to get Utah class sizes down to 15.

That calculation ignores the on-going surge in Utah enrollment. When the 160,000 new students hit Utah schools over the next 10 years, Utah will need another 6,222 elementary teachers to maintain an average class size target of 15. Assuming the same $60,000 total compensation package for these teachers means Utah would pay $373.3 million for these teachers. All told, Utah would need to hire nearly 15,000 more teachers, at a total ongoing cost of $889 million.

Add in the capital costs necessary for each of these teachers to have their own room, and the cost of reducing class size to 15 becomes staggering. As the Utah Taxpayers Association’s October study, “Education Growth Projections in Utah: 2008-2022,” showed, Utah taxpayers will have to purchase $6.365 billion in land and buildings to house the surge of students entering Utah schools. If reducing average class size to 15 requires the same proportional increase in capital costs as this analysis projects in salaries and benefits, those capital costs could easily exceed $10 billion.

How much would meaningful class size reduction cost? This analysis shows we’d have to increase ongoing education spending by nearly $900 million per year. And our capital costs – to provide the additional classrooms for those teachers – would dwarf that increase. Given class size reduction’s mixed record in raising student achievement and Utah’s unique demographics, class size reduction seems a fool’s errand.

Would it be possible, even laudable to instead increase average teacher pay, and thereby attract the best and the brightest into Utah’s classrooms? What about providing virtual class size reductions through the use of technology in the classroom?  When smaller class sizes are what increase the number of teacher union dues payers, don’t expect the unions to make teacher pay a higher priority than class size.  The union’s viability rests on reducing productivity, not improving it.