A bill coming before the Oregon Legislature, which convenes Monday, could finally assuage teachers of crammed classrooms.
House Bill 4113 changes only five words to existing collective bargaining laws, but would make class size a mandatory subject.
This means districts would be required to discuss class size along with things like salaries and benefits when making budget decisions.
“(Class size) tends to exacerbate any other issue we have in the education system,” said John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association.
“The way things work right now, either side could say, ‘No, we don’t want to talk about that,'” he said. “The more times we don’t have that conversation, the worst (the) problem becomes.”
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Oregon has some of the largest classes nationwide, with an average of 25 students per class.
In 2014-15, there were more than 450 math classes in the state with more than 36 students per class, plus more than 70 science classes with more than 46 students, according to Oregon Department of Education’s 2016 Class Size Report. Additionally, more than 20 percent of kindergarten classes had more than 26 students.
Studies show large class sizes can negatively affect absenteeism, standardized test scores, graduation rates and teacher retention.
Large class sizes are particularly damaging in lower grades, where teachers are building students’ understanding of core subjects, such as reading, writing and math. This is in addition to developing social and emotional skills, including how to follow instructions, how to share and how to sit still.
“At some point, you are so overloaded you just hope everyone has a place to sit,” Larson said, referring the challenges teachers face. “And students just don’t learn when there are so many students in a room.”
The bill was presented to lawmakers last session, but died after its public hearing in front of the House Education Committee.
Sponsors are trying it again in the short session, this time with the House Committee on Business and Labor.
“We get that there’s a finite amount of dollars for every school,” Larson said. “But we believe educators should have some say in how they use those dollars.”
Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, a chief sponsor on the bill, told the Statesman Journal class size is his top priority this session. But he doesn’t have a strong idea yet whether the bill will pass.
“It is unacceptable when there are more students than desks,” he said. “I want (families and educators) in there complaining about class size.
“It should be the highest priority of the district. Everything else should come second,” he said. “And then, if they say, great, now we don’t have enough money, I’m happy to fight for more money.”
Clem said this is one option the state can take, but it isn’t the only one.
“It doesn’t get them more money, but it does put them in the middle of the conversation,” he said.
Opponents of the bill, including the Oregon School Boards Association, argue ramifications from the bill could cost districts millions of dollars they would otherwise use to hire new staff, train existing employees and create and expand programs that benefit students.
“Is it important to talk about? Yes,” said Jim Green, executive director of the school boards association. “At the bargaining table, though? No.”
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Green who also serves as a member of the Salem-Keizer School Board, is wary of any bill that makes something mandatory. “Class size is important, but forcing (it) could cause a strike,” he said.
But Green doesn’t deny Oregon has a class size problem. The more kids, the more expectations, the more issues, he said. “Classroom management is an issue.”
Green presented an outcome in which a certain number would be set for the maximum number of students that could be in one class. Any additional students would require the district to pay the teacher additional money.
Districts, he said, would have to cut support staff, programs and the number of instructional days in an already short school year.
In addition to budget constraints, Green said districts often don’t have the facilities or bodies to accommodate the changes either, which is a much larger financial undertaking.
Green is worried the complex issue, which would impact Oregon’s 197 districts, won’t have the time it needs to be discussed in a short session.
“If it’s required to bargain, (the district) is not able to offer programs we offer to all other schools,” he said. “(There is) population growth in certain parts of the city — you need that flexibility.”
This would lead, he suspects, to extensive mediation processes and strikes. “It doesn’t actually do better for teachers,” he said.
Larson countered, saying that’s very extreme. “I don’t think we have any locals who go into bargain thinking they want to go on strike.
“Strikes are really awful things,” he said. “(They’re) a last-ditch effort.”
Larson said the bill allows each district to address class size as they see fit.
He emphasized smaller districts may not have an issue with class size, comparing the idea to Measure 98 funds for career technical education or dropout prevention efforts where individual districts can allocate money for their specific needs.
“The bill doesn’t set a threshold,” Larson said. “It lets each district have a meaningful conversation about what a good class size would be.
“We may not come to any solution,” he said. “But at least we have the conversation and at least it’s out there.”
A public hearing and possible work session on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 1 p.m. in Hearing Room E at the Capitol.
Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.