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In Utah, a plan to cut 12th grade

The proposal by state Sen. Chris Buttars would chip away at Utah's $700-million shortfall. He's since offered a toned-down version: Just make senior year optional.

February 15, 2010|By DeeDee Correll

Reporting from Denver — At Utah's West Jordan High School, the halls have swirled lately with debate over the merits of 12th grade:

Is it a waste of time? Are students ready for the real world at 17?

For student body president J.D. Williams, 18, the answer to both questions is a resounding no. "I need this year," he said, adding that most of his classmates felt the same way.

The sudden buzz over the relative value of senior year stems from a recent proposal by state Sen. Chris Buttars that Utah make a dent in its budget gap by eliminating the 12th grade.

The notion quickly gained some traction among supporters who agreed with the Republican's assessment that many seniors frittered away their final year of high school, but faced vehement opposition from other quarters, including in his hometown of West Jordan.

"My parents are against it," Williams said. "All the teachers at the school are against it. I'm against it."

Buttars has since toned down the idea, suggesting instead that senior year become optional for students who complete their required credits early. He estimated the move could save up to $60 million, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The proposal comes as the state faces a $700-million shortfall and reflects the creativity -- or desperation -- of lawmakers.

"You're looking at these budget gaps where lawmakers have to use everything and anything to try to resolve them," said Todd Haggerty, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's left lawmakers with very unpopular decisions."

In Utah, the opt-out proposal could prove more politically feasible.

"The bottom line is saving taxpayer dollars while improving options for students," said state Sen. Howard A. Stephenson, a Republican and co-chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "The more options we give to students to accelerate, the more beneficial it is to students and taxpayers."

But some education officials say they don't think the plan represents a change.

"We've always had an option in place for early graduation," said Debra Roberts, chairwoman of the Utah Board of Education, adding that it was OK to give students the choice to graduate early, but that they shouldn't be pushed to leave.

About 200 students a year take advantage of early graduation, said Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent.

Buttars, who did not respond to calls for comment, has said he would offer incentives to encourage students to graduate early.

Last week, his proposal met with approval from some who praised his efforts to cut costs, if not the plan itself.

"In a really hard economic time, we have to think of new options," said Aleta Taylor, a South Jordan mother of seven, adding that she needed more specifics before supporting the plan.

Whether the plan proves viable, it does raise a valid point about "senioritis," said William Sederburg, the state commissioner of higher education. "The thing that Sen. Buttars tapped into is that too many seniors take the senior year off," he said.

As far as high school senior Williams is concerned, 12th grade is as rewarding as a student wants to make it.

"Senior year hasn't been a waste for me," said Williams, who writes for his school paper, plays lacrosse, sings in two choirs and takes college-level courses. "If you're the type of kid who will slack off, you'd find a way to do that in sophomore or junior year anyway."

Correll writes for The Times.

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