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After a year in which students suffered profound academic, mental, social and emotional upheaval, Oregon legislators have a moral obligation to put students’ needs first in making any school-related decision.

Unfortunately, many are already failing that test with Senate Bill 580, which handily passed the Oregon Senate last month with nearly all Democrats and one Republican voting for it. The bill, a teachers union priority, would require school districts to negotiate class size and case workload with their teachers unions. While the bill does not specify how large classes should be, a class-size agreement could require districts to either add teachers or pay a penalty to those whose classes exceed the negotiated maximum.

But make no mistake. With no additional funding, this bill would have no appreciable effect on the number of students in a class ­– the median number is 25 across all grades. Worse, it would force districts to divert its limited dollars from other needs, including initiatives that are already showing progress in closing the academic gaps between historically underserved students and white, higher-income students.

Oregon Education Association President John Larson told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that class sizes are so big in some instances that teaching is more like crowd management. Teachers, he said, are unable to spend time with individual students and requiring districts to have “a conversation” about class sizes only makes sense when so many students want smaller classes as well.

The problem is that making class size a mandatory issue for bargaining isn’t just a conversation. It elevates that deficiency among the countless deficiencies that exist in our schools. No one wants overcrowded classrooms, but in the ever-underfunded world of education, we need our districts to survey the entire landscape of needs and push for the best use of its limited dollars to serve students. When 85% of a school budget is devoted to labor costs, spending more money on teachers means fewer school counselors or nurses; fewer programs for students and even potentially fewer school days.

It’s important to note that school districts and teachers unions already can negotiate class size if both sides agree, as Portland Public Schools and its teachers union chose to do so in 2018. But PPS’ experience shows exactly why this bill will do little for students. As Richard Donovan with the Oregon School Boards Association pointed out in testimony earlier this year, the agreement didn’t significantly shrink class sizes; rather, the district has simply paid $2.5 million in extra compensation to educators for class sizes that exceed the negotiated maximum. The sheer expense involved in increasing the teacher workforce to dramatically change the number of students in a classroom guarantees that other districts would opt for making such penalty payments as the less expensive option. And some districts which simply lack the physical space to split classes into smaller groups would have not even be able to split one class into two smaller ones.

Legislative direction to prioritize class size at schools across the state also undermines the groundbreaking work legislators accomplished just two years ago in passing the Student Success Act. The law, which levied a new corporate activities tax to fund education, includes new revenue in a “Student Investment Account” for districts to use for supporting students’ behavioral health and improving academic outcomes, particularly for students from underserved communities. Importantly, districts must develop a plan for those dollars after consulting with their communities.

Those investments can include decreasing class size, although the cost of bringing class sizes of 25-30 down to 15-20 would easily exhaust the account. But schools can also use that money to add reading specialists for elementary students, increase electives for middle-school students or fund dropout prevention programs and accelerated college classes at the high school level. They can buy more art, music, science and technology programs or other classes throughout all grades. If the question is how can districts best make a difference in student lives, the answer is not reducing class size by a few students.

Oregon has already seen how targeted spending aimed at improving equity has powered educational gains in recent years for students of color, English language learners and other historically underserved groups. Legislators should be looking at how to expand such outcome-based spending. Instead, they are putting their thumb on the scale to help one of Democrats’ biggest and most generous donors.

Legislators who support this bill should ask themselves some bigger questions as well: How does mandating that school districts negotiate class size produce the massive investment needed to hire additional teachers to bring those class sizes down? How does this bill magically ensure that districts with small, outdated buildings will suddenly have the means to build additional classrooms? How does this emphasis on class size justify the hit to equity investments? And how does ordering school districts to come up with agreements result in a solution other than forcing them to take away from something else?

There’s a reason that this bill, which has been brought up every year for the last four years by union-friendly legislators has failed to pass the last four times. The members of the House Business and Labor Committee, where the bill now sits, should make it five for five.