Merkley offers plan to reduce class sizes

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced legislation March 6 to invest $2 billion in smaller class sizes for public schools.

The bill – offered with Democratic Senators Michael Bennet (Colorado), Kamala Harris (California), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) – stated smaller class sizes increase student achievement and improve working conditions for educators, but added state budget cuts and federal underfunding have led to overcrowded classrooms in many districts.

The Smaller Class Sizes for Students and Educators Act aims to reverse this trend by investing $2 billion into smaller classroom sizes for kindergarten through third grade (K-3) students, the document reads.

“When reducing class size is approached in accordance with best practices research by targeting grades K-3 and a maximum of 18 students, the long-term effect has been increased student achievement gains,” Brookings-Harbor School District (BHSD) Superintendent Sean Gallagher said. “It appears that is exactly what Senator Merkley is trying to achieve with the Smaller Class Sizes for Students and Educators Act legislation.”

We are the wealthiest nation on earth and can afford to do better, according to Merkley, who said it’s time to invest in high-quality public education.

“I attended Oregon public schools as a child, and I remember having around 20 children in my first grade class. But when I dropped my son off at his first day of first-grade, there were 34 children in his class,” Merkley said. “Too many students in one classroom make it harder for teachers to do their jobs effectively and for children to receive the individualized attention they need.”

“We know that when class sizes are smaller, teachers and students both perform better. It’s time to make a major investment in our classrooms so that every child in America has a chance to succeed,” Harris said. “I’ve been proud to support so many teachers around the country who have been marching for better conditions for themselves and their students and know that this bill would represent significant progress towards improving our public school system.”

Last month, eight members of the Brookings-Harbor Education Association (BHEA) — the union representing many of the district’s employees — attended the Oregon Education Association’s (OEA) “March for our Students.”

BHEA President Dane Tippman said members went to support the OEA’s goals of reducing class sizes, increasing funding equity for rural schools and adding support personnel and counselors to schools.

Kalmiopsis Elementary School uses portable or modular classrooms for its kindergarteners, according to library manager Jenny King, who said these should be replaced by adequate and safer classrooms within the school.

She felt deficiencies in facilities are the kinds of issues to be dealt with in the legislature, and she was advocating for improvements by marching.

BHSD teacher Lisa Piscitello said she is always in favor of smaller class sizes; they are always positive for students and teachers. However, she was only “tentatively in favor” of the federal legislation because of concerns with sustainability and where the money will come from.

She feared the money would come on a one-time basis and be offset by continued or deeper budget cuts at the state level.

“Mr. Merkley is proposing a significant line item for schools. He has an amount detailed but no clear means of garnering that ready money that would employ the increase in teachers required,” she said. “In our district, especially in our grade school, where will those teacher’s classrooms be? We are bursting at the seams. Is there funding to build another school for the already overcrowded grade school?”

But Piscitello added, “This is an excellent issue to tackle; I am in favor of the overall concept, but reserve my full support before we underfund yet another significant educational initiative.”

BHSD public information officer Nancy Raskauskas-Coons noted other organizations dedicated to public education in Oregon also supported legislation and funding to reduce class size, including the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon School Boards Association and the Oregon Education Association.

As written, the legislation would establish a $2 billion competitive grant program for school districts to reduce class sizes to not more than 18 students per class, award five-year grants to school districts where 75 percent or more of the population falls below the federal poverty line, use money to recruit, hire, and train qualified teachers, offer money to districts meeting class size limits to create additional space or renovate existing school buildings and prioritize low-income schools and those with the highest average class sizes in grades K-3.

The legislation is endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association, the National PTA, and the First Focus Campaign for Children.

“Class size matters. That is, of course, if you care about the success of our students. That’s why the demand for smaller class sizes was central to so many of the teacher walkouts this year,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “It’s common sense that when classrooms are overcrowded, it is harder for teachers to teach and students to learn.”

“What teachers and parents know and numerous studies demonstrate, smaller class sizes enable more time to be devoted to each student, student needs to be more easily identified and material to be covered more effectively, which positively impacts children’s achievement,” PTA President Jim Accomando said. “Class size reduction efforts require a significant financial commitment for recruiting, hiring and training qualified teachers as well as increasing space in school buildings.”