Improving K-12 education will once more top the agenda of the new Oregon legislature as Governor Brown and legislative leaders sort through a menu of ideas generated by the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success.
The committee trekked 2,700 miles, went to 10 communities and visited 50 schools before huddling last week in Salem to share ideas and settle on priorities. There were lots of ideas, some touted as game-changers. Many of them aren’t new ideas.
Shoring up public schools became a major issue in the gubernatorial election, with unsuccessful GOP challenger Knute Buehler pledging to scrape Oregon from the bottom five nationally in high school graduation rates to the top five in five years. Brown was more measured, pointing to the committee’s work as the basis for recommendations to the 2019 legislative session.
Brown did urge extending the K-12 school year, which was a popular idea among the welter of suggestions emerging from the committee, which sorted its exploration into three categories: school readiness, college preparation and high-quality classrooms.
Even the idea of extending the school year has options. Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton and chair of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, suggested reimbursing K-12 schools based on the days they actually operate rather than on a calendar extension. “It’s $50 million a day, but it’s $1 billion if we add 20 days to the school calendar,” Hass said.
Another popular idea is investing in career technical education so it is more widely available in high schools throughout Oregon. Voters approved Measure 98 in the 2016 election, but the legislature approved $170 million, not the full $300 million requested in the ballot measure. Expanded career and technical education is viewed as a way to prevent some students from dropping out.
One of the most impassioned parts of the committee session involved mental health. Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, was a school board member before her election to the House. “We’re hearing the same things I’ve heard for years. Mental health needs came up in every forum, every roundtable, every single time, every single school,” she told fellow committee members.
Concern also was expressed for students who show up in the classroom despite sketchy housing situations. Committee chair Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, acknowledged social problems bedeviling students and schools, but said efforts should be made to forge strong connections with existing social service and housing providers.
Senator Tim Knopp, R-Bend, offered other intriguing ideas, such as subsidies to ensure a supply of diversified classroom teachers and adding back TAG (talented and gifted) and special needs specialists, arts, music and physical education programs and increasing the number of librarians and counselors. He also reminded the committee that Oregon’s quality education model calls for smaller class sizes, which he said would cost an additional $2 billion per biennium to achieve. The Oregon School Boards Association says the quality education model has been chronically underfunded since its inception two decades ago.
How to pay for these ideas inevitably turns to revenue sources, including new or higher taxes. Democrats will hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate that would allow them to approve revenue-raisers without any Republican votes. However, the point of the joint committee was to reach some bipartisan consensus on an education improvement agenda heading into the 2019 session.
Any discussion of tax increases returns to the Public Employees Retirement System’s unfunded pension liability that has driven up costs to public employers, including school districts. Some observers called the PERS issue the most defining issue of the 2018 gubernatorial election. If so, voters sided with Brown’s cautious approach to whittling down the unfunded liability, though there may be pressure to take more substantial steps. In a post-election editorial, The Oregonian urged Brown to use the “political freedom” of her final term in office to exercise “courageous leadership” on the PERS issue.
Smith Warner asked committee members to prioritize the ideas they support. She also asked them to consider what she called “categorical spending,” which would tie new funding to specific programs or possibly educational outcomes. Committee members will be pushed to pair spending ideas with enhanced funding options.
Legislative Democrats and Republicans will meet soon to organize for next year’s session and to take the first steps toward solidifying their respective agendas. Public education will certainly be on the top of the list for both caucuses, even if priorities and funding plans are still in process.