Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at what voters say are the biggest problems facing Oregon right now, and what Oregon’s next governor might do about them.
In the last two years, education and public schooling have become political in a big way both in Oregon and nationally.
Schools closed March 2020 due to the pandemic, and schools in Oregon were some of the last to reopen to students in spring of 2021. For the past two years, Gov. Kate Brown has made decisions around the pandemic that have drawn both frustration and support.
There was the decision to close schools and keep them closed for months, and the decision to make vaccines available to teachers before the elderly.
When schools did reopen, masks were required for everyone, and vaccines (or valid exemptions) were required for adults. The mask mandate ended in early March, months after some school district leaders passed resolutions asking for local control in COVID-19 decision making.
Protesters against COVID-19 policies blamed Brown for students struggling mentally and emotionally. Such difficulties existed before the coronavirus, but evidence has mounted showing the isolation, stress, and anxiety of living through a global pandemic has made problems worse.
Academically, there was controversy around a bill passed last year ending one graduation requirement. Some incorrectly said the loss of the “essential skills” requirement now means Oregon students can graduate without knowing how to read, write or do math. The rule change meant that students no longer had to achieve a passing score on one of several exam options, but students still have to earn a certain number of credits to graduate, including in math and language arts.
Part of that “essential skills” legislation directs the Oregon Department of Education to explore other options for graduation requirements, including seeking feedback from the public.
In the open race to be Oregon’s next governor, education and schools have been widely discussed as a problem to be solved — and one that many in the race believe Gov. Kate Brown has made worse throughout the pandemic. For some candidates, that problem is mostly about academics, but for others, the difficulties also demonstrate the culture and consequences of a school system, and state, led by Democrats. As a result, the solutions they’re offering vary a great deal.
A new governor could mean a new approach to education in the state: Oregon’s governor has a direct hand in managing public schools. As the superintendent of public instruction, the governor appoints the director of the Oregon Department of Education, whose agency oversees schooling for over 550,000 students.
ODE will continue to lead efforts to catch students up after two years of pandemic schooling, by supervising financial streams from the statewide Student Success Act and federal COVID relief funds that must be spent by September 2024.
Wide-open Oregon governor’s race meets national school controversies
National trends have taken root in Oregon over the last couple of years — from declining enrollment to the politicization of school boards to polarizing debates over classroom curriculum.
With Brown term-limited, the field is open and both Republicans and Democrats have laid out plans to improve education.
Two candidates, Democrats Wilson Bright and John Sweeney, cited education as the most pressing challenge facing Oregon today in OPB’s survey.
Republicans and at least one Democrat responded to OPB’s question about union power saying Oregon’s teachers union was too powerful.
What is your overall impression of public sector labor unions?
Source: DHM Research survey of likely Oregon voters, margin of error +/-4%
“They have an oversized amount of power and influence,” said Republican candidate Bill Sizemore in his response to OPB’s questions.
A number of candidates, mostly Republicans, criticized Brown’s handling of the pandemic when it came to school reopening.
The race for the Republican nomination also includes a former school superintendent, Marc Thielman. As superintendent of the Alsea School District, Thielman worked with the school board to defy the state’s indoor mask mandate, resulting in fines for the district, complaints and a lawsuit against Thielman, as well as successful recall elections against school board leadership.
But for both candidates and voters, Oregon’s graduation rate remains one of the biggest issues of concern for the next four years.
According to a DHM Research poll, 82% of Oregon voters ranked Oregon’s high school graduation rate as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.
How serious is the problem of Oregon’s high school graduation rate?
Source: DHM Research survey of likely Oregon voters, margin of error +/-4%
Voters, candidates concerned about low graduation rates
Several gubernatorial candidates, particularly Republican candidates, cite different numbers when talking about Oregon’s graduation rate in comparison to the rest of the country. One candidate said Oregon schools are “48/50″ in the country. Another said “Oregon ranks near 47th nationwide in school success metrics”.
According to federal data on graduation rates, Oregon is tied for 46th with Alaska and Louisiana with a graduation rate of 80%, though the most recently compiled graduation rates are from the 2018-2019 school year. For that school year, the U.S. average graduation rate was 86%.
Oregon’s most recent graduation rate, for the Class of 2021, is 80.6% — a two-percentage-point drop from the graduation rate for the Class of 2020, which was a historic high for the state.
While Oregon continues to rank low nationally for its graduation rate, it has increased by 8.6 percentage points since 2014. But as Oregon’s graduation rate has improved over the years, other states have improved their grad rates too, with graduation rates dipping across the country last year, just as they did in Oregon, according to Chalkbeat.
Although state-by-state data isn’t readily available for last spring, Oregon appears to have surpassed Alaska in terms of graduation rates for the Class of 2021. Alaska’s graduation rate was 78.1%. But data from Louisiana shows an 84% graduation rate for the Class of 2020, the most recent year available. However, without knowing how students in other states performed, it’s difficult to accurately place Oregon’s most recent graduation rate in a national ranking.
The Republican candidates’ focus on graduation rates mirrors the level of concern expressed by Oregon voters in the DHM Research poll conducted for OPB. In that survey, 62% of Republican respondents rated Oregon’s graduation rate as a “very serious” problem.
It’s also a problem for nonaffiliated voters like Brian K. Brian did not want to use his last name out of concern that he could face retaliation in his work as a college educator. He said mental health has not received the attention it deserves on the campaign trail, as he’s noticed more students with substance abuse issues since the pandemic began.
“They’re already coming in with a host of social, emotional type issues, and there really isn’t anything in place outside of some pamphlets and a guidance counselor who kind of doubles as a person to talk to for those students,” Brian said.
When choosing a candidate, Brian said he wants voters to make decisions based on what directly impacts their children. He’ll be thinking of his daughter. He said after having “behavioral issues” in school, she entered a job training program. But when the pandemic started, things moved online, and she didn’t finish.
“There’s a lot of kids out there like that, so that’s something I’m looking at personally in a candidate,” he said.
“How are we going to mitigate this so that we can look at these at-risk and vulnerable students and serve them?”
As a solution, several Republican candidates suggested more school choice for families in order to make public schools “competitive.” Several also voiced support for hiring supportive teachers.
In responding to OPB’s survey questions to candidates, Republican Bridget Barton said “standards will be reinstated and expectations raised for all children.”
Former Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, has the support of the state’s largest teachers union, the Oregon Education Association. Kotek has stated a goal to raise Oregon’s graduation rate to 90% for all student groups by 2027, which she says can happen through “new investments” for school funded by the Student Success Act, a law she helped pass. Oregon already has a goal that 100% of students complete high school, starting with the Class of 2025.
Candidates in both parties expressed support for career training and vocational programs as a way to improve Oregon’s graduation rates.
In his response to OPB’s survey, Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read shared his plan to make investments with “long term goals.”
“I will invest in universal pre-k and early literacy programs along with summer enrichment programs that will allow students to catch up and avoid the summer slide,” Read wrote.
Read isn’t the only candidate with specific policy proposals for the state’s public schools. Republican Jessica Gomez’ 4-step plan includes implementing “two-way immersion language programs” in kindergarten through 12th grade. Gomez also said Gov. Brown’s best achievement as governor was her work in early childhood education.
“I believe that this investment will serve Oregon children well, giving them the best chance of success as they head into our K-12 system,” Gomez shared in OPB’s survey.
Carla Van Cleave, a Portland Democrat, would support extra funding going to Oregon schools via a sales tax. That’s been unpopular in the past, and none of the candidates for governor said they would support a sales tax when asked in OPB’s questionnaire.
Voter Anna Martens lives in Portland. She also sees a problem in how education is funded in Oregon and in Portland. She has a kindergartener in public school whose classmates are going to private schools for smaller class sizes, which leads to lower enrollment and less funding.
“If those affluent families leave, then so do the opportunities for teachers to get support in the classroom,” Martens said.
She says education has been overlooked by the gubernatorial candidates for other serious issues including homelessness and the environment, but it deserves more attention.
“I think it’s the foundation of equity in our society, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” Martens said.
So does the educational experience for students with disabilities. She says she decided to send her 12-year-old stepson, who has special needs, to a school in Washington Martens says has the funding to address his needs.
Beyond Oregon students graduating from high school, recent national and local conversations about what students are taught in schools and how students are supported has also permeated the gubernatorial race.
Debate about ‘divisive’ curriculum a focus of Republican candidates
Oregon schools have been drawing increased attention from gubernatorial candidates, specifically Republicans, for policies and curriculum aimed at supporting students in marginalized groups, including students of color and LGBTQ students.
As Florida passed a bill banning classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity, commonly called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Gov. Kate Brown released a video on social media.
“In Oregon, we say ‘gay’,” Brown said in the short video. “...We want to make sure that Oregon is a safe, inclusive, and welcoming place for all.”
Oregon has state health standards related to gender, including objectives in kindergarten and first grade to recognize and explain that “there are many ways to express gender.” School districts are required to teach comprehensive health education, which includes what the state considers to be age-appropriate lessons on sexuality and gender from kindergarten through 12th grade.
State officials say learning about gender identity and sexual orientation supports students in the LGBTQ community.
“Teaching these topics supports inclusion and respect, prevents violence, and encourages the learning and overall health and well-being of all students — especially those who may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, non-gender binary, or transgender, (LGBTQ) — by affirming that all students are deserving of dignity, respect, and inclusion,” according to an FAQ document about the state’s comprehensive sex education curriculum.
The state has adopted policies to support students in the LGBTQ community, as well as a student success plan. The state has also enacted success plans for Black and Latino/a/x and Indigenous students.
Stan Pulliam, current mayor of Sandy and a Republican candidate for governor, said in his response to OPB’s questionnaire that Oregon needs a “culture shift” in education.
“Curriculum has become overwhelmed with indoctrination — at the expense of education and training,” Pulliam wrote.
Pulliam has publicly criticized recently adopted policies to support trans students in the Salem-Keizer School District. Such policies have been recommended by the Oregon Department of Education for years.
His wife, MacKensey Pulliam, started Oregon Moms Union last spring in an effort to urge Gov. Kate Brown to reopen schools full-time. A year later, the organization now calls for parental involvement and transparency in school curriculum. The group has asked parents to anonymously submit assignments or other materials that may go against their “family values.”
Pulliam said in a recent TV ad that he fought to get “critical race theory” out of schools. Critical race theory is an advanced academic concept that shows systemic racism is inherent in American society. Critics have used the term as an inaccurate catch-all to characterize lessons and policies related to race and equity in K-12 schools.
Other Republican candidates mention “getting back to basics” in schools, including Christine Drazan and Bob Tiernan.
“Public schools need to focus on the basics, set high standards, and keep politics, social issues, and political correctness” out of the classroom, wrote Tiernan in response to OPB’s survey question about graduation rates.
“Basics” typically means reading, writing, and math, though graduation requirements also include social studies and health, among other subjects.
Whoever becomes Oregon’s next governor will have to deal not only with meeting Oregon’s academic goals, but also with the increased scrutiny and criticism about what Oregon’s students learn.
That will likely include the rollout of Oregon’s new ethnic studies standards for social studies classes, which will be required for the 2026 school year.
Nonaffiliated voter Brian K. won’t have a ballot to fill out in the primary. But at this point, he doesn’t see a candidate that quite represents his views.
“It’s been extreme rhetoric one way, or extreme rhetoric the other,” he said. “And as somebody – I consider myself to be moderate – I’m not seeing anything that’s giving me a lot of hope in the grand scheme of things.”