Fourteen legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, state representatives and senators, convened Thursday night in the auditorium at Portland’s Madison High School. They heard a familiar refrain.
“We need stable and adequate funding,” argued a school board member from Hillsboro.
“Please provide adequate funding,” lobbied a mother of two students at an elementary school in the Parkrose School District.
“We are depending upon you to secure reliable funding,” pleaded a first grade teacher.
“Adequate statewide funding,” pushed a PTA representative.
“Adequate funding for schools now,” concluded a union organizer.
Parents and educators laid out dire conditions they’re seeing from inadequate funding: teacher shortages that force elementary class sizes to over 40 students, a lack of para-educators leading to legally insufficient special education services, and a dearth of programs that students like best, like art and music.
Several school librarians argued many schools are falling short of mandates to provide library specialists in public schools.
“We are supposed to have a K-12 library media program in each of our districts. In my district, we don’t really that, because all we have to deliver that is me,” said Rita Ramstad, the Centennial School District’s media specialist.
“I’m a half-time media specialist — that makes my student teacher ratio about 12,000 to one,” she said.
Others pressed legislators for greater investments in school counselors, to address the needs of students who’ve experienced trauma and other mental health challenges.
The legislators’ stops around Oregon have culminated in hearings, but they’ve included school tours as well, where educators and students laud programs that are boosting academic achievement and engaging kids. But Portland Public Schools board member Paul Anthony cautioned the Joint Committee on Student Success against jumping to conclusions about the success stories they’re hearing.
“The sad fact of the matter is that after 30 years of cuts, any successful investment in a school or program in Oregon, only comes at the cost of something else that in hindsight often proves to have been at least as critical to student success and well-being,” said Anthony.
Legislators learned the pains that parents are taking to prop up schools in the absence of funding. Parents from schools with different demographics often shared similar complaints. Relatively wealthy Alameda Elementary and lower-income Scott Elementary are in Northeast Portland, not far from Madison High School. Parents from both schools complained that local fundraising efforts exacerbate inequities between schools.
Portland parent Emily Goldenfields complained that fundraising was an early lesson her daughter learned at her first school assembly, as a kindergartner.
“The entire school needs to sell wrapping paper for the next three months, and they’re competing against each other to see who can sell the most, so they can have a popsicle party,” Goldenfields told the legislators.
“I told my 5-year-old, it’s not her job to fund schools – it’s your job to fund schools.”
PPS board members Anthony and Rita Moore offered a financial estimate of how much Oregon schools should receive: upwards of $10 billion, according to Anthony, and at least $10.7 billion, according to Moore. The state’s general fund for education in 2017 was about $8.2 billion.
One of the last speakers was Greg Burrill, a substitute teacher in Portland.
“I sure hope you have a plan to adequately fund our schools,” Burrill told the committee.
But the legislative panel is a long way from providing a funding plan, or even finalizing how much money schools should receive, according to the committee chair, Rep. Barbara Smith-Warner, D-Portland.
Legislators have suggested they’ll introduce a bill to fund schools at the level called for in the Quality Education Model. The QEM is a school funding analysis released every two years by the Quality Education Commission, which the legislature created almost 20 years ago. For years, the QEM has recommended funding levels that are far higher than what legislators have actually spent.
Committee members, however, aren’t ready to say how much money they’re ready to spend, or where that money will come from. Advocates are also questioning what strings might be attached to higher funding levels — whether lawmakers will prescribe classroom programs, or direct officials on how to handle funding liabilities like the rising cost of the Public Employee Retirement System.
Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said he doesn’t expect the committee to condition higher funding on cuts to teacher compensation.
“Some folks have said they don’t want to pay teachers because of other political issues of one form or another,” Frederick said.
The North Portland Democrat acknowledged legislators will have to wrestle a number of thorny issues ranging from mental health challenges in schools to teachers’ health and retirement benefits.
“I don’t think those are strings that are going to be there but we’re going to have that discussion, I’m sure,” Frederick said.
But neither Frederick nor the joint committee’s chair, Rep. Barbara Smith-Warner, D-Portland, suggest that lawmakers would simply pour more money into the State School Fund and hope for the best. They said the committee is debating how to steer school districts toward strategies and supports that are known to help students, with a layer of accountability to make sure those efforts are working.
Smith-Warner said the statewide tour has reminded legislators of the broad support, both among voters and inside schools, for Ballot Measure 98. T
he initiative passed easily in 2016, funneling money to high school programs with three goals: to prevent dropouts, to help students prepare for post-secondary opportunities, and to boost career-technical education. Smith-Warner said the committee likes expanding the Measure 98 principle of setting goals, but not laying down tight rules.
“Giving people both guidelines, but not being overly prescriptive, and at the same time, asking… ‘show us, what are the results?’,” said Smith-Warner.
Smith-Warner called this Measure 98 approach “categorical spending,” and would differ from Measure 98 in one big way.
“Measure 98 was an unfunded mandate,” Smith-Warner said. By contrast, the committee’s approach would cover far more than high schools, but would come with money.
Smith-Warner suggested including money to run pre-school classes in elementary schools. The idea would be then to measure that pre-school program’s success somehow, such as by whether it improved kindergarten attendance by 10 percent.
The accountability aspect could prove challenging in one other way, suggested Rep. Frederick. The former public school spokesman and educator has been critical of relying on standardized tests, and he wondered aloud how long initiatives should be tried, before judging them.
“Can you determine that in a two-year cycle? Or do you need 20 years to determine if some things are working or not?” Frederick asked. “Because I do think you need a much longer period of time.”
Committee members have a Nov. 8 deadline to submit recommendations. Rep. Smith-Warner said they’re planning to summarize promising strategies based on the work of sub-committees that have been meeting in recent months.
A price tag would likely follow. Smith-Warner said she’s hoping to offer at least two options: the Quality Education Model and an approach based more directly on the committee’s field visits in recent months, possibly with the “categorical spending,” she described.
The committee’s final visit is an October trip to Marshfield High School in Coos Bay.