Class-size bill doesn’t address the problem, opponents testify
Thursday, March 4, 2021
The Legislature is considering a class-size bill again, but testimony Wednesday shed little new light on an idea that has been rejected in at least the past four sessions.
Senate Bill 580 would make class sizes a mandatory contract bargaining issue. The bill’s supporters told the Senate Education Committee vivid stories of crowded classes and overburdened teachers. Opponents said the bill would raise school costs and increase the chances of teacher strikes without doing anything to lower class sizes.
Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, emphasized the statewide desire for smaller classes. Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, presented the bill as a tool to empower teachers to work with school boards to bring down class sizes.
Testimony before the Senate Education Committee stretched more than an hour and will be continued next week. Everyone agreed large classes are a problem in Oregon and students learn better when they can receive individual attention.
“After decades of underfunding Oregon schools, we all share concerns over staff workload and specialized attention for students,” OSBA Board Vice President Sonja Mckenzie told the committee. “However, I want to share with you why I don’t think Senate Bill 580 helps us address either of those issues in a meaningful way.”
Mckenzie, the Parkrose School Board chair, said class size is a function of budget-balancing decisions. Reducing class sizes requires more teachers and more space. To pay for more educators, Parkrose would likely need to cut electives for the middle and high school students or reduce the number of educational assistants and support staff, she said. And the Portland schools would still need to find a place to put those extra classes.
Because reducing class sizes isn’t really possible for Parkrose, forced bargaining on class size would likely lead to paying bonuses known as overages for teaching classes over a determined size, Mckenzie said.
In the past two years, Portland Public Schools has paid $2.5 million in overages, according to Richard Donovan, OSBA Legislative Services specialist.
“This bill is about labor negotiations between school districts and school district employees,” Donovan said. “This moves money. There is no evidence to suggest this lowers class sizes.”
Donovan and Mckenzie said it’s also an equity issue. Class-size decisions often depend on the level of behavioral supports the students need, with students needing more attention being placed in smaller classes. A one-size-fits-all approach ignores efforts in recent years to tailor student supports to individual needs.
Increased school investment, especially the Student Success Act’s targeted spending, is a better way to address class size, Donovan said, and representatives from the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators echoed that sentiment.
More than 120 school districts filed plans this school year to invest Student Success money in lowering class sizes and workload, said Morgan Allen, COSA deputy executive director of policy and advocacy.
“You, as a Legislature, have already provided the most important tool to districts to address large classes sizes and that’s the Student Success Act,” he said.