A temporary measure allowing schools to exceed class-size limits without financial penalties will automatically end in five months unless the Legislature acts this session.

But none of the solutions are ideal, placing policymakers in a bind.

If they let the nine-year-old moratorium expire, schools could face losing funding as a penalty for exceeding caps on class size. Yet what is needed to reduce class sizes is an influx of teachers, which costs money, and there’s an ongoing teacher shortage.

But extending the moratorium, as at least one bill proposes to do, could have its own negative effect: Classrooms would remain packed, which is one of the issues that is driving teachers out of the profession.

It’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma with no easy solutions.

Ballooning class sizes were a frequent point of contention during the teacher walkout in April. And it’s not just Oklahoma. Smaller classes were also part of the recent Los Angeles teachers strike, and the deal to end the dispute includes a gradual reduction in the maximum class size.

Teachers in Oklahoma are still clamoring for change, which is why the state Department of Education says additional funding is needed to allow schools to start hiring back teachers.  

“It’s impossible for some districts to meet it (class size limits) right now. They either don’t have the space, or they can’t find the teachers to get class sizes down, much less the money to do it with,” said Matt Holder, deputy superintendent of finance and federal programs at the state Department of Education.

Elementary classes are, by statute, capped at 20 students, and secondary teachers are limited to 140 students per day. These reforms were part of the landmark Education Reform Act of 1990, also known as House Bill 1017. The statewide moratorium on penalties has been in place since 2010.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister is making a push for an additional $273 million to hire more teachers so schools can provide smaller classes as part of the department’s fiscal-year 2020 budget request.

“You have to have new funds to hire new teachers,” she told lawmakers in a budget session Tuesday.

She seemed to indicate support for extending the moratorium, which ends on June 30, saying, “Any penalty would be counterproductive” right now.

So how can schools reduce class sizes when there aren’t teachers to hire? Hofmeister said the department is prioritizing three avenues: luring back teachers who’ve left the profession, keeping current teachers in the classroom through delayed retirement and retention, and driving more young people, particularly millennials, into the profession. 

Few Numbers Available

It’s hard to know just how large classes have gotten. The state hasn’t collected data on class sizes in years. Anecdotally, there are reports of classes with 35 to 40 students or more, like those described in a column written by Jon Hazell, Oklahoma’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.

Class-size caps were a major tenet of the reforms implemented by HB 1017 in 1990. Initially, many teachers did experience a significant decrease in student load, but the changes didn’t last long. Within a few years, many districts were receiving an exemption. In 2010, the Legislature passed the moratorium, and then in 2016 they passed Senate Bill 933 hoping to implement a long-term exemption.

That legislation waives penalties until the state provides at least $3,291.60 per student through the funding formula. A statewide teacher pay increase implemented this year helped push funding levels over that amount, which means the moratorium will end after June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

There are signs lawmakers plan to address the moratorium. Senate Bill 193 by Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, would essentially extend the moratorium until state per-pupil funding meets or exceeds the regional average.

Another proposal, SB 428 authored by Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, would reinstate the cap for kindergarten through third-grade classes only.

One of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s budget priorities, which he outlined in Monday’s State of the State address, is a $1,200 raise for all Oklahoma teachers. This is in addition to the $6,100 average pay increase teachers received last year and would bring Oklahoma’s pay in line with  surrounding states’.

He also called on lawmakers to implement a bonus recruitment program to encourage new teachers to stay in the state as a way to address the teacher shortage.

Not mentioned was any additional formula funding to help schools reduce class sizes, and some education advocates took notice.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said Stitt’s proposals were promising signs of a continued investment in education but don’t address all of schools’ needs.

“We continue to hear from education leaders about the desperate need for a long-term funding education plan to reduce class sizes; restore elective coursework like art, music, honors courses; provide classroom resources; increase training support for teachers, and broaden access to mental health counselors and school-based social workers,” he said.

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