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Legislators can be patient creatures, introducing the same bill or concept in session after session, waiting for the idea to take root.

And sometimes, it is true, it takes years for other legislators to understand the merit of an idea. So any veteran legislator can tell you about a bill or idea they have introduced in session after session, waiting for it finally to emerge triumphant on the governor's desk, merely awaiting a signature to become law.

There are other times, however, in which a legislative bill fails to gain much traction, session in and session out, for a simpler reason: It's a bad idea.

Which brings us to House Bill 4113, which is among the measures the Legislature will consider when it convenes next week for its short 35-day session. The bill would make class size a mandatory subject of collective bargaining between teachers and school districts.

A similar measure was introduced in the 2017 session, but it failed to pass. Maybe the measure's luck will change in the 2018 session. 

Let's hope not.

Under current state law, class size is listed as one of a number of education items that cannot be included in collective bargaining. (House Bill 4113 would leave all the other items untouched, and the list of those includes some unusual items: school calendars, standards of performance or criteria for evaluating teachers, the school curriculum, reasonable dress, grooming, the time between classes and at-work personal conduct regarding smoking and gum chewing, among other items. We actually would like to sit in on bargaining sessions involving gum chewing, so we would accept an amendment to the bill allowing that item to be considered in bargaining.)

More seriously, the obvious intent behind the bill is to do something to reduce class sizes in Oregon schools. That's not a bad goal. But there's an obvious corollary to smaller classes: They require additional teachers and facilities. Those cost money. House Bill 4113 doesn't allocate an extra dime to help school districts pay for those additional teachers and facilities.

In fact, the price tag for smaller class sizes throughout Oregon could be a budget-buster in a state that still struggles to adequately fund its public schools. Worse, trying to find ways to pay for those smaller classes might mean that money would not be available for other education initiatives that might be more effective at improving Oregon's still-dismal high school graduation rate. In a recent editorial, The Bend Bulletin newspaper noted that states that have aggressively worked to reduce class sizes — California, Florida and Wisconsin — have had to dial down those efforts because of costs and because the results weren't as clear-cut as expected.

So it seems unlikely that putting most of our education eggs in this basket will make much of a difference in Oregon's public schools. We have higher hopes for a proposal from Senate President Peter Courtney, who's forming a joint legislative committee to restructure Oregon's education system.

If this approach sounds familiar, this is essentially the same strategy that the Legislature used to craft a transportation bill that actually passed in the 2017 session, two years after a similar bill died. In the wake of that failure, legislative leaders appointed a bipartisan committee that gathered input from every corner of the state. The end result was a consensus that somehow managed to stick together throughout the 2017 session and eventually prevailed.

Education, of course, likely will be a more contentious subject than transportation. That means there are plenty of ways for Courtney's initiative to go off the rails.

But we like the idea of a broad-based and wide-ranging  examination of the state's public education system. And it seems to us that such an effort could prove much more useful than the one-size-fits-all approach of House Bill 4113. (mm)


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