Okla. Senate Education Committee Considers Effectiveness of State's Class-Size Mandates

Article excerpt

In 1990, the Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 1017, which was hailed a landmark education reform.

At the time, the reform receiving the most attention was a pay raise for teachers, but another provision capping class sizes is now being scrutinized with some officials talking of repeal.

Although small classes were touted as a way to improve student performance, officials now question that assumption and some even believe the cap on class size may be draining money from more vital needs in the school system - such as raising teacher salaries.

It is definitely something we need to look at because we have this mandate to comply with class size, said Sen. Penny Williams, D- Tulsa and chair of the Senate Education Committee. For some populations, it makes all the difference in the world. For others, it's not a factor. We know that effective teaching is the number one thing that makes a difference for any child. In Oklahoma and I'm sure in other states, we have assigned in many cases our least- experienced teachers to classrooms most in need of very experienced and effective teachers.

Williams said studies have shown that smaller class sizes improve the performance of low-income students in poor-performing schools - big time - but small class size has a negligible impact on the performance of students in other settings.

It doesn't serve well as a mandate in my opinion, Williams said. It's like an unfunded mandate, because there's no money you flush through the (state school funding) formula that is earmarked 'class size.' There's no weight in the formula that says 'class size help.' So if you have a policy where there's a mandate without the money directly attached to it, one alternative is to take away the mandate and look at the results. And the important results to look at are not all of the classes, but the economically disadvantaged districts or schools.

Sen. Mike Johnson, R-Kingfisher, also believes class-size mandates may have had unintended results. He noted that information recently provided by the Oklahoma Department of Education showed that the amount spent per student in some states was lower than Oklahoma, but those states still provided higher teacher salaries.

For example, per-student expenditures in Arkansas average $5,651 compared to $6,237 in Oklahoma. But teacher salaries in Arkansas average $36,962 compared to $34,744 in Oklahoma (based on National Education Association figures).

Johnson said legislators need to learn why there's such a difference between Arkansas and Oklahoma.

I suggested possibly that one of the reasons was that the requirements that we've placed on class size, which might have been lower in Oklahoma, have caused the cost per student to be higher, Johnson said. And if that was the case, possibly if we changed some of our mandates there maybe we could also raise teacher salaries.

Johnson said he is not necessarily advocating elimination of class-size limits, but said the issue needs study.

My personal experience has been it's not the size of the classes, it's the quality of the teacher, said Johnson, a former school board member for the Kingfisher school system. If you've got an excellent teacher, she can teach more (students).

He said certain subjects may require smaller class sizes than others.

A review of available data suggests Oklahoma's emphasis on smaller class size may have boosted the number of teachers employed in the school system.

As a result, the class-size cap may have artificially reduced average teacher salary since funding for teacher pay must now be distributed among a larger pool of educators.

While Oklahoma's average teacher salary of $32,870 ranked 49th in the nation, the state ranks 26th in the number of teachers employed (41,452), according to figures compiled by the American Federation of Teachers, and Oklahoma has a lower teacher-to-student ratio than all but one state in the region. …