In Oregon, small classes come at suburban districts' expense – OregonLive.com
It’s widely known that Oregon has some of the nation’s largest class sizes. Classes of 35 or even 40 students, unheard of in the vast majority of states, aren’t rare here.
But a deeper analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive shows that there are in fact two Oregons when it comes to class sizes.
Nearly every district in the three-county Portland metro area plus those in Bend, Eugene and a handful of small towns have truly mammoth class sizes, newly released state figures show. Students in Beaverton, Hillsboro, North Clackamas, Tigard-Tualatin, Gresham and Sherwood learn in some of the biggest classes in the nation.
A single factor explains that difference: Money.
How much money a district can spend and how much it pays teachers largely determines how many students fill the classroom, the analysis found.
Oregon districts that manage to dodge the state’s big-classes curse rely on high spending or low teacher salaries, or both, to assign teachers more manageable student loads.
Research suggests that reducing class size has very limited impact on student achievement. In Oregon, some of districts with extra-large classes generated big learning gains for their students this year, while many with small classes did not.
But class size matters a lot to parents and to teachers, who say it only makes sense that a student will get more and better feedback and more personal attention in a smaller class.
Big districts, ultra-large classes
In suburban Portland schools, as at Starbucks, small is not on the menu. Classes are large or extra-large, whether in big Beaverton, mid-sized Sherwood or pint-sized Gladstone. Ditto for Hillsboro, Oregon City and Forest Grove.
Classes averaging about 30 students were the norm in all those districts last year, state figures show.
That is because Oregon, in its effort to equalize educational offerings around the state, limits how much nearly all large and medium-sized districts can spend to roughly $9,000 per student.
Meanwhile, to remain competitive with each other and with other local salaries for college-educated workers, those districts feel compelled to pay teachers relatively high wages, averaging about $62,000.
“We need to remain competitive in the market; that’s how we attract the best people,” said Hillsboro communications director Beth Graser.
The modest funding and high teacher pay combine to limit how many teachers Hillsboro and the other districts can afford to hire. The result is that their typical teacher is assigned a staggering number of students.
Elsewhere in Oregon, however, large, medium and small districts that operate under the same ostensibly equalized spending rules don’t have gigantic classes – and some have decidedly small ones.
Mid-sized districts far from Portland, mid-sized classes
Districts that operate in low-cost labor markets can offer mid-sized classes, even on a tight budget.
Springfield, Roseburg and Hermiston are perfect examples. They get nearly the same per-student funding as a Beaverton or a Sherwood. But they don’t have to pay teachers the same high salaries that they command in the metro Portland market.
With their below-state-average teacher pay of about $56,000, this group of mid-sized districts can buy more teachers. And they do, putting their average classes at about 25 students.
Portland: It’s special
How can a district that pays teachers well afford small class sizes? By boosting local funding.
Portland Public Schools has medium and even small classes because the district found a way to spend 20 percent more per student than those around it.
Portland is one of just three Oregon districts where voters have approved the largest possible local option property tax, roughly $1,300 per student, to supplement state funding. (Lake Oswego and Riverdale, Oregon’s wealthiest communities, are the other two.)
On top of that, Portland won a special exemption from the law that compels property-rich districts to share their tax bounty with the rest of the state. That provides Portland schools an additional $20 million a year, or about $400 per student.
Portland uses its extra $85 million a year to hire hundreds more teachers than neighboring districts could afford. Its average elementary class had 24 students last year and the typical high school English class just 23.
Tiny districts, big subsidies, tiny classes
Meanwhile, 100 other districts, mostly Oregon’s smallest, offer small or even miniscule classes. In Alsea, for example, the average elementary class had 15 students last year, the state says. In the McKenzie district, home to just 70 high schoolers, high school core academic classes averaged 12 students.
All 100 districts, which serve as few as two students and as many as 2,000, receive extra per-student funding to staff their small schools.
Districts get a subsidy of up to $400,000 for any elementary schools that enroll fewer than 224 students and are at least nine miles from another elementary school in the same district
Districts also get extra money, up to $650,000, for any high school with fewer than 350 students. That applies equally to Riverdale ($650,000 subsidy, 240 students, two miles from Wilson High in Portland) as to Jordan Valley High ($360,000 subsidy, 35 students, 85 miles from Ontario High).
Together, the special treatment for small and remote schools drives $75 million in subsidies to small schools in 134 districts. Only four districts are in the three-county metro area: Colton, Gaston, Riverdale and Corbett.
Those subsidies have come under scrutiny several times over the past quarter century, but have survived with only minor tweaks.
Their effect on the 100 districts with the smallest class sizes is palpable. In most cases, the subsidies raised their per-student spending 30 percent above the state average.
Fourteen of the smallest districts were able to spend $25,000 to $66,000 per student in 2013-14, the most recent year for which figures are available. That is nearly three to seven times what suburban Portland districts spend.
With very few exceptions, small, mostly rural districts that receive the subsidies also pay their teachers far less than average.
Those two circumstances — high funding and low labor costs — enable those districts to offer the kind of boutique class sizes found at expensive private schools.
“It’s a fantastic learning experience,” says Mary Lewis, part-time clerk and bookkeeper for the Ashwood School District, where one teacher educates the four elementary pupils who live on ranches surrounding the remote former mining town.
No accounting for regional costs differences
If variations in labor costs create huge differences in class size, why doesn’t Oregon send more money to schools that have to pay the highest teacher salaries than to schools in less competitive labor markets, as some states do?
Oregon explored that idea in the mid-1990s. But it didn’t get traction then and hasn’t been seriously pursued since.
Instead, the state school funding formula has remained largely unchanged since it was created in 1991.
The idea was to keep it simple, equal and fair – as much as that is possible in a state where districts vary wildly in size, population and economic circumstance.
Every school district gets the same amount of money per student, with certain exceptions.
Schools get 1.5 times as much for a student learning English as a second language, twice as much for a student in special education and 1.25 times as much for every student living below the federal poverty line. The subsidy for each small school also is determined by formula.
Twenty-five years later, said Claire Hertz, chief financial officer for Beaverton schools, the most serious concern about its fairness isn’t that big metro districts like hers don’t get their fair share.
Rather, it is that schools serving poor students and those learning English as a second language need a bigger share of the pie, she said.
That was the broad conclusion of a task force of lawmakers and educators, including Hertz, who looked into the funding formula last year. After all, those are the student groups that aren’t making academic strides and graduating on time, she said.
How Oregon school funding has changed
The biggest change to Oregon’s funding equalization effort came in 1998, when lawmakers and voters gave the OK for school districts to raise a bit more in property taxes and keep it all to themselves, rather than contribute it to the statewide funding pie.
In theory, that means any school district can bump up its spending by about 15 percent if its voters give the OK.
Most districts don’t even try to pass such a tax, knowing their voters will say no. Among the 22 districts that have successfully sought a local-option tax, most collect far less than the $1,300-per-student limit.
The Pendleton, Morrow and Milton-Freewater districts, with far different politics and demographics than Lake Oswego, have won voter approval for local option levies. But the extra taxes bring in roughly $100 to $200 a student –- not enough to reduce class sizes noticeably, as Portland and Lake Oswego have.
Even Beaverton collects only about half as much in extra school taxes as the state limit allows. District leaders didn’t feel they could ask voters to approve more than $1.25 tax per $1,000 of assessed property value, Hertz said.
“There is always a limit of what our community will support,” she said. “We listen to our community.”
The same community has said that one of its three biggest priorities for Beaverton’s schools is to lower class size. The district has already invested millions in reducing primary school class sizes, Hertz said, and it wants to do more.
But she won’t press to reduce subsidies for rural schools or close the loophole protecting Portland’s, she said. Instead, Beaverton will push with other districts to raise funding for all the state’s schools, she said.
“I am hesitant to single out one area of the state versus another,” she said. “We are a collaborative group in education.”
— Betsy Hammond