Just how big (or small) are Oklahoma class sizes?

January 10, 2019

Jonathan Small, Mike Brake

The state’s student-teacher ratio is 18 to 1, but some schools report much larger class sizes. In part, this is because districts have prioritized hiring non-teachers over teachers.

If demands for pay increases drove the 2018 tax increases and teacher walkout, demands to reduce class sizes are likely to motivate the education establishment’s 2019 agenda.

That’s not surprising. Many of those who marched at the state Capitol last spring for pay raises also cited overcrowded classrooms as another motive for their discontent.

“Fewer teachers means larger class sizes,” said Jon Hazell of Durant, the 2017 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. “It is not uncommon to see classes of 35 or 40 students or more.” But is that the norm? 

The latest report by the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability says the student-teacher ratio in Oklahoma schools for the 2015-16 school year was 18.0, meaning one teacher for every 18 students. Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) for the current school year suggests a student population of 691,137 and a teacher corps of 41,057, which would indicate a student-teacher ratio near 17 to 1. Similar data from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2016 suggested a 16 to 1 Oklahoma ratio.

Of course, a student-teacher ratio is not the same as a class size average. Some classes, most notably those in special education, may have as few as four or five students for a single teacher; others, like high school band, might have 100 or more students under the supervision of one teacher. But the ratio suggests that more analysis is needed in order to know just how typical are classroom sizes of, say, 25 to 35 students.

Some regions of the state, whether small rural communities or challenging urban schools, may have trouble attracting teachers. And it is often harder to find teachers for more challenging subject areas like science and special education. A 2016 analysis by Baylee Butler and Byron Schlomach of the 1889 Institute noted that less emphasis on class sizes and more use of technology to deliver online instruction should alleviate any potential teacher shortages in the coming years.

Spending more money to get smaller classes is popular, despite evidence that it has little effect on student learning. In a new study summarizing the findings of 148 reports from 41 countries, Danish researchers found that “small class size has at best a small effect on academic achievement.” Their systematic review of the evidence, published in October 2018, “suggests at best a small effect on reading achievement. There is a negative, but statistically insignificant, effect on mathematics, so it cannot be ruled out that some children may be adversely affected.” The researchers conclude:

Class size reduction is costly. The available evidence points to no or only very small effect sizes of small classes in comparison to larger classes. Moreover, we cannot rule out the possibility that small classes may be counterproductive for some students. It is therefore crucial to know more about the relationship between class size and achievement in order to determine where money is best allocated.

Nevertheless, many in Oklahoma’s education establishment are likely to make class-size reduction a centerpiece of their 2019 legislative strategy.

Deana Silk, OSDE communications director, said schools have been operating for several years under legislative and administrative waivers that exempt them from maximum class-size and teacher-load mandates that were first imposed in 1990 by House Bill 1017, the massive school reform and tax increase bill passed that year.

One of its primary goals was to reduce class sizes. It set a maximum class size of 20 for elementary students and a daily student load maximum of 140 for secondary teachers, who usually have five or six class periods per day.

Tulsa Public Schools’ enrollment declined five percent and teacher employment went down four percent—but non-teaching staff increased 145 percent.

However, HB 1017 also had some built-in exemptions that immediately allowed many schools to ignore those class-size limits. Schools were exempt if they had exceeded 85 percent of their bonded debt capacity, if they were already levying the maximum allowable millage in property taxes for schools, or if they were short of the classroom space that would be needed to add more classes.

Many of the larger school districts met one or more of those exemptions before HB 1017 was even signed into law. A news article in 2002 said that at least 189 of the more than 520 districts then in existence had been exempted from the class-size rules.

So mandated class-size maximums routinely aren’t followed even during record funding years. Then came the budget crunch associated with the 2010-2012 recession, and most state schools curtailed teacher hiring. We recently contacted several school districts and found that many of those districts were well above the class size limits of 20/140.

Chuck McCauley, superintendent of Bartlesville Public Schools, said classroom crowding is very real for his schools. “We have over 50 sections of high school classes with 30 or more students enrolled,” he said. That could result in daily student loads for some teachers handling six periods of 180 or more. “We also have nine fourth- and fifth-grade classes with 27 or more students during both of the most recent school years.”

McCauley said the increased funding funneled to schools by the 2018 Legislature has had zero impact on class sizes. “We only had enough of an increase to fund the pay raises,” he said.

McCauley said his district would need to hire 30 new teachers to reduce class sizes to the HB 1017 mandates. “I am confident legislators will now work towards regionally competitive per pupil funding which would improve class sizes,” he said.

Tulsa Public Schools reported a wide difference in class sizes, depending on the school site. Tulsa’s elementary schools reported classes ranging from 19 to 25, with classes from 17 to 27 in middle schools and 16 to 23 in high schools.

Steve Lindley, spokesman for Putnam City Schools, said, “we did experience some classroom overcrowding due to budget and staffing issues last year. And while we were able to add some teachers this year, and while it’s meaningful to whatever schools and grade levels of subjects we can help, it’s not enough to provide widespread relief.”

Lindley said Putnam City had to abandon its middle school team-teaching approach last year (where a team of core subject teachers have the same student group throughout the day) but was able to restore that system this year with the hiring of nine additional middle school teachers.

“It will take a few years for enough people to decide to be teachers (due to the higher salaries) and be in college for the teaching pipeline to begin to fill again.” He said the district has hired a number of retired teachers to return to the classroom as aides.

More Non-teachers than Teachers

Unfortunately, many in the education establishment, while complaining about ballooning class sizes, have steadfastly opposed reforms that could have helped alleviate those issues. Oklahoma has long spent an excessive share of school dollars on administrative costs. That spending disparity alone could account for many classes being larger than otherwise.

A 2014 analysis by the liberal news organization Oklahoma Watch showed that Oklahoma ranked sixth-highest in the percentage of school dollars spent on district administration (3.2 percent) and 16th in school administration (5.4 percent.) The state ranked 40th for the 52 percent of school dollars actually dedicated to instruction. 

Those figures were for the 2011-12 school year. The most recent data for 2015-16 are similar, with 3 percent spent on district administration, 5.8 percent on school administration, and 53 percent on instruction. Additional average expenditures for Oklahoma schools include 7.1 percent for student support, 3.8 percent for instructional support, 17.1 percent for district support, and nine percent attributed to other expenses.

While Oklahoma’s large number of school districts is noteworthy, hiring habits are another factor.

Economist Benjamin Scafidi, who has studied this issue extensively, reported that between 1992 and 2015, student enrollment in Oklahoma rose 17 percent and teacher hiring increased by 12 percent—while hiring of non-teaching employees soared by 36 percent. The dollars required to sustain high levels of non-teaching staff are one other reason for those 35 or 40 kids in classrooms.

The Bartlesville example cited above is indicative. Using the most recent data reported to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) from the OSDE, Scafidi says student enrollment in Bartlesville declined by six percent between 1994 and 2016 and the number of teachers declined by seven percent, but administrators and all other staff grew by 10 percent. So those excess students cited by the district in many classrooms can at least partly be attributed to trends in non-teacher staffing. 

The Scafidi study was even more telling concerning Tulsa Public Schools. For the 1994-2016 period, Tulsa schools showed a student enrollment decline of five percent and a four percent drop in teacher employment—but a dramatic increase in administrative and non-teaching staffing of 145 percent.

Putnam City, the third district surveyed, showed three percent enrollment growth, nine percent teacher hiring growth, and a 29 percent increase in administrative and non-teaching staffers. 

In fact, Scafidi’s most recent research shows that for the 2015-16 school year, Oklahoma public schools actually employed more non-teachers (43,462) than teachers (42,452). That is hardly surprising when just 53 percent of total school funding is dedicated to classroom instruction.