In the third and final gubernatorial debate, Gov. Kate Brown gave a number of where she wants the graduation rate to be by the end of her term, assuming she’s re-elected.

“Eighty-five percent, 2022,” Brown said.

That’s slightly above the national average of 84 percent and would entail a significant increase from the state’s current 77 percent rate.

Oregon’s state ranking has hovered somewhere near the bottom five in the nation for the better part of a decade.

In addition to the consistently dismal graduation rate, class sizes are larger than average and the state’s K-12 public school system is underfunded to the tune of $1 billion a year.

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Previous governors have attempted to improve the situation. Most of the lofty reforms former Gov. John Kitzhaber introduced have now fizzled.

Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Knute Buehler has been hitting his Democratic opponent hard on education.

“The single biggest failure of Gov. Brown is her indifference to fixing Oregon schools,” Buehler often says on the campaign trail.

Brown and Buehler have a surprising number of policy ideas in common when it comes to fixing the state’s public schools. They both want to see a longer school year and have called for extending it by two weeks to the national average of 180 days. They are both calling for an increase in funding for the state’s public schools. They both emphasize a need for strong career-technical programs and have pointed out that it’s problematic that there aren’t more teachers of color.

But where the candidates differ is how they suggest paying for the ambitious school reforms they are proposing. Buehler continues to call attention to the state’s pension system, which he believes is crippling local school districts. He’s suggested a series of reforms (which will be covered in an upcoming OPB issue story), while Brown has steered clear of state’s pension system. Instead, she’s said she doesn’t believe the state’s education system will be improved by cutting teacher’s retirement benefits.

“I think it’s easy for a millionaire to say he’s going to cut the retirements of hard-working Oregonians,” Brown said of Buehler during the third gubernatorial debate. “I’m not willing to do that.”

Here are the education policy platforms from the three major-party candidates. 

Candidates are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

Kate Brown (Democrat)

Gov. Kate Brown is quick to point to a 22 percent increase in education spending since she took office in 2015. Communities of color saw a 7 percent increase in their graduation rate due to investments her administration made. And more children have access to free preschool than before she took office.

But still, Brown admits, a lot more needs to be done.

Brown said her big push if re-elected will be to invest in quality preschool for low-income families. She wants to see 40,000 students enrolled in free preschool by 2025.

When it comes to lowering class sizes, Brown gave specifics: averages should be lowered to 20 students in kindergarten, and 23 students in first through third grades.

Brown is also promising to invest $300 million in career-technical programs — the price tag to fully implement the 2016 voter approved Measure 98.

The Democratic governor has declined to give details on how she proposes to pay for her education reform idea.

Knute Buehler (Republican)


State Rep. Knute Buehler, of Bend, kicked off his general election campaign by revealing his education platform, one which he’s taken to calling “ambitious but achievable.”

His boldest promise is to make the state’s public school system go from being one of the worst in the country — in the bottom five — to being in the top five within five years.

Buehler frequently states that he doesn’t believe tax dollars are getting into the classroom. The reason why, he said — and a key component to his education plan — is the state’s education budget is being consumed by public employees’ pensions.

If elected, Buehler said he wouldn’t sign any new spending bills until lawmakers bring him a pension and health care reform bill that could free up an additional $1.2 billion. The state’s pension system is facing an approximate $22 billion deficit.

Buehler also believes new funding for schools should be tied to meeting improved outcomes. If a school district is able to improve graduation rates or extends the school year, the district would be eligible to receive more funding.

Patrick Starnes (Independent)

Independent Party candidate Patrick Starnes likes to point out that he’s the only candidate who has been a school board member.

He agrees with Buehler that the cost of the pension system is consuming the state’s budget.

He also believes in broadening who is covered by the state’s pension system to include private sector workers in a new system he’s dubbed the Oregon Universal Retirement System.

Starnes has championed the idea of tax on junk food — similar to the one existing on alcohol and cigarettes — to help pay for the education system. Sugary drink taxes in Oregon have been met with significant opposition from grocers.  

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