Lincoln High School classroom

Lincoln High School classroom

Rob Manning/OPB

One of the most significant education bills in the Oregon Legislature this session appears to be dead.

But advocates on both sides say they’re looking ahead to life after the legislative session’s conclusion in two weeks.

Parents, students and teachers often complain about Oregon’s large classes. Over the years, lawmakers have debated capping class sizes, particularly in the early grades. But mostly, they’ve received reports — the latest in 2016 — on the number of students and teachers in classrooms, to give a class-size snapshot from the state’s 197 school districts.

The most recent national survey shows that Oregon has larger class sizes than most other states for some groups of students, but not all.

House Bill 4113 would not have mandated limits on how many students could be in a single class. Instead, it would have forced discussion of those limits in contract negotiations between school districts and their teachers’ unions.

Portland Public Schools recently settled a contract with its union that included class-size limits and possible remedies if they’re breached. Portland Association of Teachers president Suzanne Cohen said at the time that it was important for legislators to require class size as a subject of bargaining, because priorities of administrative leaders vary from district to district.

But the union push for class size in bargaining appears to have failed this session. Bills had to receive work sessions by Feb. 27, and a spokesman for legislative Democrats confirmed HB 4113 isn’t getting one.

“The bill didn’t make the work session scheduling deadline necessary to make the Senate floor,” said Rick Osborn, communications director for the Senate Majority office.

Supporters such as the statewide teachers union, the Oregon Education Association, said the bill would have helped students get more individualized attention.  

“We all know Oregon’s large class sizes are making it harder for students to be successful in school,” said OEA President John Larson. “It’s past time to do something about it.”

Larson acknowledged getting bills passed in the short legislative session is more difficult than in the odd-year longer sessions, but he was still unhappy with the bill’s failure in the Oregon Senate. 

“It’s frustrating and disappointing,” he said.

The Oregon School Boards Association opposed the bill, arguing the measure would have cost a lot without really helping students. OSBA director Jim Green called the legislation an attempted “power grab” by teachers unions.

“There’s no question that class size is important, but legislators are recognizing that this bill has nothing to do with what is best for kids,” Green said.

Where Green and Larson agree with legislative leaders is that all eyes now turn to a recently-formed task force expected to offer big reforms to Oregon’s public school system.

“We need to focus on how to pay for our schools, and we are starting to see a path for that through the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success,” Green said.

OEA President Larson also acknowledged the importance of the new committee.

“We’re also calling on the Joint Committee on Student Success to explore this topic and bring it forward for passage in the 2019 legislative session,” Larson said.

The bipartisan education group is modeled after a task force that met in 2016 to discuss traffic problems and the state’s failing roads and bridges — a group largely credited with helping pass a significant legislative package to improve Oregon’s transportation system.