Class-size bill would increase costs without necessarily helping students, administrators say
A new bill making class size a mandatory part of collective bargaining could create a financial and logistical nightmare for school districts, administrators and education advocates say.
Currently, class size is a “permissive” subject, meaning it can be a part of contract talks but districts do not have to discuss it. House Bill 4113, which will have its first hearing Wednesday, would revise state law to make class size a “mandatory” subject, meaning districts would have to address union demands for maximum class sizes or teachers could strike over the issue. The bill is a top priority for the Oregon Education Association, the teachers union.
If contracts contained maximum class-size language, districts would be forced to either hire more teachers without getting additional funds from the state or likely pay teachers some sort of bonus for teaching more than the contract limit. School administrators and business officials worry about having to cut other programs to pay soaring salary costs, with little reduction in class sizes and uncertain improvement in students’ education.
“This is an unfunded mandate that will come at the expense of a well-rounded education – there’s no question about it,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green. “Districts don’t have the resources to meet the requirements, whether it’s people, facilities or money.”
OSBA, which opposes the bill, has created a resource page on HB 4113.
The bill does not state a maximum class size, nor does educational research clearly support an optimum class size. Class sizes in Oregon vary by grade level, subject and district. Under the bill, representatives of the teachers union would be able to bargain for whatever target number they chose.
Rep. Susan McLain (D-Hillsboro), a teacher for more than 40 years, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. She stressed the importance of class sizes for making connections with students and to having manageable lessons and activities. She said class-size discussions needed to be open and transparent.
“The bill brings it up front and personal where the whole education community has a chance to talk about why this might be an important subject for collective bargaining,” she said.
The median class size for Oregon is 25 students, according to the 2016-17 Statewide Report Card. The limited research available suggests that to make a significant difference in student achievement, class sizes would have to fall to at most 18 students.
To lower median class sizes statewide by just three students would require about 2,600 additional teachers and cost $575.6 million for the 2019-21 biennium, the Oregon Department of Education calculated. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, said analysis of education investments showed that class-size reduction was among the least cost-effective strategies for educational improvement.
Oregon districts have begun doing their own rough calculations of what it would cost to lower their class sizes. They can approximate how many teachers are needed to lower the districtwide student-teacher ratio and what those teachers would cost in salary and benefits. But at the school level, the math for adding teachers is not so simple.
For starters, districts in Oregon and around the country already struggle to find teachers, especially special needs teachers and teachers with multiple endorsements for teaching in high schools. Nationally, districts have been reporting teacher shortages since 2015.The problem is compounded for remote and small districts that have a smaller pool of applicants and don’t have dedicated staff for recruitment efforts.
Sharie Lewis, Parkrose School District’s director of business services and operations, says the district has a difficult time finding new teachers. She does not think the district could find the roughly 24 high-quality teachers it would take to bring the district’s student-teacher ratio down by three.
It’s also a question of the practicality of hiring additional teachers, particularly for smaller districts. Union School District in northeast Oregon has the equivalent of about 20 teaching positions, and most teach a single grade level or subject. To lower class sizes even by one at any grade level, Union would have to hire another teacher or create blended classrooms that tend to be unpopular with parents and teachers.
A small district such as Union faces yearly fluctuations in classroom enrollment as well. A fourth-grade teacher might have 18 students one year and 27 students the next year, making a class-size target in a contract difficult to fulfill.
Union Superintendent Carter Wells says he wholeheartedly supports the idea of reducing class sizes but not through contract limits.
“How are you going to financially support it?” he said. “We’re using every dime and dollar we have.”
In other states and Oregon, contracts that contained class-size maximums included provisions for bonus pay when class sizes exceeded the maximum. In 2015, the teachers union proposed that the Lebanon (Ore.) Community School District pay teachers $10 per day per student over a maximum size. The proposal also limited the district’s ability to combine classes to bring down sizes.
Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland), who is also a member of the Reynolds School Board, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Joe Teeny, Reynolds board chair, opposes the bill.
“The kind of class-size reductions that would be sought by this bill or even gained by this bill would not generate the kind of outcomes we would be looking for,” Teeny said. “As I understand the bill today, the union’s interest is not in increasing student achievement; it’s in increasing their salary and benefits.”
Rep. McLain says the bill does not force the districts to do anything but it does require negotiations to take place. The OEA did not respond to requests for an interview.
District representatives say they would have to consider shutting down other programs, cutting school days or laying off support personnel to pay for more teachers or increased teacher salaries.
Teeny said his district’s students would benefit more from classroom supports for teachers, such as aides, and investments in programs, such as elementary music, that would have a greater impact on a student’s life.
Even if a district could find and pay for more teachers, it would often need more classrooms as well. Generally, schools that have class-size problems are growing districts that also have space issues. Portable classrooms can cost more than $300,000 to purchase the building, prepare the site with utilities and furnish the classroom. Schools that are unable to add more space would have to cannibalize existing spaces. Schools would potentially have to turn gyms into classrooms, repurpose music rooms or rethink labs and media spaces.
Administrators argue that discussions about how best to use district resources and facilities to benefit the most students should be left to local leaders. Even communities where class sizes aren’t an issue could be forced to bargain with teachers over the number of students per class.
Both sides point to the Quality Education Commission’s call for education investment. For the 2017-19 biennium, the State School Fund fell $1.8 billion below what the Quality Education Model says Oregon needs for highly effective schools.
“If we were funded properly to begin with, there would be no class-size issue,” said OSBA Director of Labor Services Peggy Stock. She has been a part of contract negotiations all over the state. “Nobody really wants larger class sizes, but this bill is not the appropriate solution.”
Parkrose’s Lewis says there should be a push for more educational assistants in the classrooms to help with grading homework or handling behavioral issues.
“The answer isn’t necessarily a teacher,” she said. “It’s what is in the classroom to help them.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA