by David Safier

Here's a true story from the annals of Oregon education.

Every year or two, teachers unions and school districts square off for contract negotiations. The unions bargain for higher salaries, better benefits and stronger teacher protections, while school boards try to lowball all three items. Let's not argue who's right and wrong. That's not what this story is about.

In Oregon, teachers also used to bargain for lower class sizes. In my district, for instance, it was written into the contract that the maximum student load for a high school English teacher like me was 125 students spread over all my classes. Other disciplines generally had higher maximums, because they didn't have as many papers to grade. But whatever was the agreed-upon number, the district couldn't exceed it. If it did, it had to hire a new teacher to bring class sizes down.

Teachers cared about class sizes, because it made for better education. Sometimes the union would actually give up something on the salary/benefits end of things to keep class sizes at an acceptable level.

Imagine that! Teachers, who chose a low paying (for the amount of education required), high stress job because they want to work with kids, actually care about those kids.

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, the Oregon legislature passed a bill forbidding class size to be part of teacher contract negotiations.

Now here's the kicker. I'm not making this up.

Every year since that legislation, during contract negotiations, school boards have complained to the press that unions and teachers only care about themselves — higher salaries, better benefits — and not about the children. Me, me, me, that's all it is. The proof? While the unions bargain for themselves, they don't bargain for lower class sizes.

Every year like clockwork that argument is in the press during contract negotiations. Those selfish teachers don't negotiate for the class sizes they're forbidden from negotiating for. Bad teachers! Bad union!