Bill to mandate class size as contract issue is wrong solution to real problem: Editorial Agenda 2017

Credit Rep. Margaret Doherty with showing the mettle that some of her fellow legislators won't. Rather than mask her sponsorship of a proposal and introducing it as a "committee" bill, the Tigard Democrat is owning it - despite its having "fiasco" written...

Bill to mandate class size as contract issue is wrong solution to real problem: Editorial Agenda 2017

Credit Rep. Margaret Doherty with showing the mettle that some of her fellow legislators won't. Rather than mask her sponsorship of a proposal and introducing it as a "committee" bill, the Tigard Democrat is owning it - despite its having "fiasco" written all over it.

Doherty, a former teachers union negotiator who chairs the House education committee, is sponsoring a bill that would make class size a mandatory subject of collective bargaining, along with such issues as pay, work hours and vacation. That means it becomes one more bargaining chip in contract negotiations between districts and teachers - as if there aren't enough thorny issues to settle. Even worse? Making class size an issue for bargaining won't do anything to relieve class size, whose resolution depends on having adequate funding, not on union negotiations.

Editorial Agenda 2017 Boost student success Get Oregon's financial house in order Help our homeless Honor our diverse values Make Portland a city that works Expand access to public records ________________________ Read more about the editorial board's priorities for Oregon.

It's great that lawmakers view smaller classes - which requires hiring teachers - as a necessity. But as Chuck Bennett of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators said pointedly to legislators, "You have not funded that."

The idea behind HB2651 isn't outlandish in and of itself. Oregon ranks among the states with the highest average class size, according to figures from the National Education Association.

Teachers, parents, principals and education advocates hold the notion of small class sizes as one of the holy grails in education. Fewer students in a classroom, teachers explained Wednesday to legislators on the House education committee, means a teacher can devote more attention to students, whether it's tailoring coursework to an individual's needs or managing classroom dynamics and student behavior.

Adding class size to the list of terms that must be collectively bargained would be fine in a perfect world with sufficient, stable funding for education. We do not live in that world. The state is facing a deficit, now projected at $1.6 billion, for the coming biennium, voters passed two new expensive education initiatives and school districts may be laying off teachers to help cover big increases in pension contribution costs starting in July.

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While Doherty dismissed concerns raised by her fellow committee members about budget pressures as a perennial issue, the basic math here is that more teachers means less money for school counselors, nurses and other supports critical to students' welfare as well. And ironically, students could also come out the losers of such a law in another way. Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro and a member of the Hillsboro School Board, pointed out that districts have painfully few options for saving money: cutting staff or cutting school days. Smaller class sizes don't do students any good if they're not in school. Along with having some of the highest class sizes in the country, Oregon also has one of the shortest school years.

Even if teachers unions don't press for smaller class sizes, the issue then becomes leverage for pay or other gains during contract negotiations. But as Bennett noted, "for management at this point, there's nothing to trade... You've got a bucket of demands, I've got a bucket of nothing."

Doherty maintained that adding class size to the list of mandatory items for bargaining only ensures that it's part of the conversation. But this is a topic that is already part of the conversation, and not just among administrators and teachers. Parents are well aware of how many students are crowded into their children's classrooms. Taxpayers in some areas have even agreed to pay more specifically to help relieve that pressure. This is not an issue that is getting short shrift. This bill, however, should.

- The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board 

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