There is a saying that “what gets measured, gets done,” and in 1990, our state Legislature seemed to understand this adage. That year, they passed HB 1017, which dedicated $560 million dollars over five years to implement historic education reforms including class size reduction, curriculum standards, testing, and early childhood programs. Since that time, state funding gains have severely eroded, and Oklahoma has not been able to maintain many aspects of HB 1017 including class size limits.
In October, the State Department of Education asked for $273 million dollars to reinstate class size mandates, which can positively impact students and improve working conditions for teachers. This ask comes in the wake of a $612 million dollar revenue growth for next year’s budget. If the Legislature does not appropriate adequate funding for schools, they will have to pass new legislation to delay class size reforms once again. Understanding how class size limits were dismantled and what has been lost is an important lesson to share at the Capitol this session.
[pullquote]While student-teacher ratio gives us some indication of class sizes, it does not guard against one second grade classroom having 45 students and another having 20.[/pullquote]
In 1990 state legislators understood that class size matters
When HB 1017 passed in 1990, it placed class size limits on classrooms across the state. For elementary grades, classes could not exceed 20 students per teacher, and middle and secondary teachers could have no more than 140 students in total. To hold schools accountable, the State Department of Education required districts to report class size data, and schools not in compliance could receive an accreditation and financial penalty. In the initial years following HB 1017, teachers saw a significant drop in classroom size, but this did not last.
The Legislature passed a moratorium on class size penalties in 2010
Due to budget shortfalls, the Board of Education began to exempt schools from maintaining small class sizes. By 2002, two out of three public school students attended schools that were exempt from class-size mandates. Finally, in 2010, the Legislature passed a moratorium on penalties for schools that did not meet class size limits and other HB 1017 mandates. The Legislature continued to extend this moratorium, and in 2016 they passed SB 933 in the hopes of establishing a more long-term exemption. To do this, SB 933 established a student aid formula factor threshold of $3,291.60, suspending class size penalties until state aid exceeded that amount. The state aid formula factor is the base amount that the state uses to calculate how much state aid each district receives.
The moratorium established in SB 933 has not lasted as long as legislators expected. Due to the teacher pay raise this past spring, state aid funding now exceeds the threshold. The 2018-2019 formula factor is $3,435.76, and unless the Legislature appropriates sufficient funding that can be used to shrink class sizes, they will likely be forced to extend the decades-long exemptions yet again, or reinstate penalties next school year.
We have lost the promise of good data and good reform
By 2012, a department spokesperson said the State Department of Education no longer required schools to report yearly class size data because the moratorium was well-established. As a result, Oklahoma does not have an accurate count of class sizes across the state. While OSSBA recently announced that Oklahoma’s student-teacher ratio is higher than the regional average, this figure is not the same as class size, and Oklahoma should not rely on student-teacher ratios to ensure our classes are sufficiently small. Research linking small class sizes to positive outcomes for students is based on the total number of students per classroom. Student-teacher ratios are most often a measure of the total number of school personnel — including administrators, librarians, and special education support staff — who spend some part of their day with students. While student-teacher ratio gives us some indication of class sizes, it does not guard against one second grade classroom having 45 students and another having 20. Class size limits prevent these imbalances.
The Legislature should stop kicking the can down the road
In the years since HB 1017 instituted class size restrictions, Oklahoma schools have lost the opportunity to bring about positive change. Student test scores improved in the decade following HB 1017, but that progress has not continued. It is unwise to spend money on reforms that don’t work, but we must be able to implement evidence-based practices, collect state-level data, and integrate these findings into long-term planning. When we stopped measuring and limiting class sizes, Oklahoma lost an opportunity to grow from data-driven reform. Instead of passing legislation to extend the moratorium on penalties yet again, the Legislature should grant schools the funding needed to put this reform back in place. Our state has reachable goals, but it needs the financial resources to help get us there.
[Image Source: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr]