Education advocates in Oregon are optimistic that this year’s state budget will bring more stability.
That’s after a year when school districts had to cut hundreds of teaching jobs. But there’s not a lot of money for new investments.
That’s the playing field for Governor John Kitzhaber’s pursuit of millions of dollars for education reforms. The most expensive of them is scheduled to come before a legislative budget panel on Monday.
Starting two years ago, Oregon began a series of structural changes to the education system. Leaders mandated “achievement compacts” from school districts to demonstrate improvements.
Legislators created the Early Learning Council and Education Investment Board. And the governor hired Rudy Crew as the state’s first-ever Chief Education Officer.
Crew is now seeking millions for a set of four “strategic initiatives.” Topping the list is reading.
“I do think the issue of reading is absolutely critical, early learning specifically,” Crew said.
Crew’s $9 million Oregon Reads proposal prioritizes targeted support and intervention for struggling readers, and funding for public libraries and after-school classes. That’s the least expensive of Crew’s four initiatives.
“The issue of STEM and STEM education and establishing a college-going culture is equally as important.”
Crew proposes 24 million for those two priorities — getting students prepared for careers and boosting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — or STEM — education. Much of the money in the initiatives would pass through to schools, where there are successful programs worth expanding.
That’s also true of Crew’s biggest initiative — creating a new support structure for teachers, which he first called “regional centers.”
“I think nothing more could be important than how teachers are supported and how we ultimately provide ongoing development supports and centers for that.”
Initially, Crew wanted up to $120 million for “regional centers” to address instruction across Oregon. That’s on top of the 30 million for the other initiatives.
“Think about this — this is $150 million. That’s not a lot of money, overall.”
Crew means that in the context of a $6.5 billion public school budget.
Since that interview a few months ago, the “centers” initiative has changed into a scaled-back “network” with a price tag of $55 million.
Its goal is the same: to pull together teaching institutions, experienced teachers and other education professionals to improve recruitment, retention, and expertise of classroom instructors.
Members of the Joint Ways and Means Education sub-committee reviewed Crew’s three smaller initiatives last week. They take up the bigger network bill next week.
Representative Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat says, “The ideas that the strategic initiative are involved with are good ideas. The question really is: are they best thing that we should be doing?”
Chris Edwards from the Senate side of the building has similar views.
“Show me, convince me, that these will be effective investments, because on paper, they look good, and in the presentation, they sound good — but I want to know that they will end up doing good.”
Both Democrats and Republicans on Ways and Means are asking for more details.
Sherry Sprenger says she’s beginning to see some helpful specifics. The Republican rep from Lebanon supports funding for a career readiness program that she’s familiar with. She’s withholding judgment on others.
“Summer transition programs for incoming 9th graders. I think it’s hard to argue that’s a bad idea. I think the conversation has to be focused on how is that going to be done, and will that make a significant difference for outcomes for kids.”
Others are wary of spending money on bureaucracy, rather than classrooms.
Fred Girod is a Republican senator for rural parts of the North Willamette Valley. He supports changes — but wants the administration kept simple.
“The state really does need to step up to the plate and try something different. But I do think we need to put the puzzle together, so that at least some of the legislators have a better picture of what we’re voting for. It’s hard to vote for a ‘trust me.’”
Crew is also hearing skepticism from people who’ve seen reforms come and go.
Portland Rep. Lew Frederick, recalls Oregon’s abandoned certificates of mastery, the 21st century school effort, and No Child Left Behind.
“It’s not a matter of trying to be a Luddite, or just not wanting to get anything done — it’s a matter of saying ‘ok, we’ve been doing this kind of new proposal, as this shiny object kind of approach for some time.’ Isn’t it time to say ‘ok, this is what works, let’s be consistent and work with that?’ ”
In a presentation to lawmakers last week, Crew attached improvement goals to some initiatives. For reading: 20 percent more kindergartners ready to read, 15 percent more students reading at grade level, in the next two years.
Crew says he knows some school staffers are worried – and he expects lawmakers are, too.
“You’re going to hear a lot of people say ‘oh, but what’s going to happen if I don’t?’ and on and on. I’m getting weary – as you can probably tell - of listening to the ‘what-ifs’. What if we succeed? If we’re going to talk what-ifs – why don’t we have that conversation? What if we hit the damn thing out of the ballpark?”
Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree that the reforms might “knock it out of the park” as Crew put it. But the balance between investing in new initiatives and spending on the classroom is tricky, especially after so many recent teacher cut backs at the local level.
Senator Chris Edwards says it’s necessary to do the side-by-side comparison. He says $55 million, if it went into the funding formula, is half a million dollars for the Bethel schools, in his district. But he says the Network of Quality Teaching and Learning might be a better two-year investment.
“You know, $55 million into ensuring that we have great teachers may be better spent than sprinkling it across all the classrooms in Oregon, and not seeing very much of an effect on classroom size, or days of school.”
Education advocacy organizations are watching the strategic initiatives closely. Groups like the teachers’ union and school boards’ association say they support the concepts, but are concerned about any spending that could divert limited money from the classroom.