Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler (center, blue suit) speaks with supporters and students outside Davis Elementary School in Gresham on June 28, 2018.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler (center, blue suit) speaks with supporters and students outside Davis Elementary School in Gresham on June 28, 2018.

Rob Manning/OPB

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Knute Buehler has a lofty ambition: transform Oregon’s public schools from a national basement dweller to the rare air of states like Massachusetts and New Jersey.

“The vision is to lead Oregon schools from the bottom five in the nation to the top five in the nation in five years,” Buehler said. “I realize that’s ambitious – it’s supposed to be ambitious, it’s aspirational, but it’s also attainable.”

Buehler spoke Thursday in front of Davis Elementary School — a school like many in Oregon that’s been closed for more than two weeks. The school year for Davis Elementary and the rest of the Reynolds School District is too short for Buehler, only about 167 days.

Buehler’s critique focused on two problems: the short school year and education money not reaching the classroom. His proposed solutions come with immediate challenges; extending the school year is expensive and would exert state control in an area that has historically fallen to local leaders, and raising revenue in the way Buehler is suggesting would pass costs onto teachers.

“We absolutely have to solve our classroom funding crisis,” Buehler said.

Buehler said the Reynolds district, where he was speaking, recently had to cut teaching positions in spite of increased revenue from the state. He said the problem is rising costs, particularly, public employee pensions.

The Republican lawmaker is proposing significant spending increases of 15 percent in the next two biennial budgets. But he only wants those increases if they’re paired with changes to the state’s public employee retirement system, or PERS.

Buehler said “real PERS reform” would need to save at least $1.2 billion that could go toward K-12 education.

While Buehler said he was open to alternative proposals, he laid out three PERS changes he felt could survive legal challenge and produce the savings he aims to achieve: capping individual payouts to $100,000 per year, requiring employees invest in their pension accounts, and changing future employee retirement accounts from a defined-benefit pension system to a 401(k).

The suggested changes to PERS are not going over well with the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union. OEA president John Larson said Buehler’s proposal represents a misunderstanding or mis-characterization of the state pension system.

“[T]oday’s public employees already contribute 6 percent of their salary to their retirement, either directly or through their employer,” Larson said. “Knute Buehler wants to take that money out of their retirement accounts to pay the state’s pension obligation.”

Teachers also balked at Buehler’s plan to cap annual compensation increases to 3.4 percent while changing health insurance for public employees.

“Buehler’s proposal would make it more difficult to hire high quality teachers by putting arbitrary caps on salaries and slashing retirement benefits,” Larson said, accusing Buehler of “scapegoating educators.”

Buehler has a number of priorities for the additional revenue, such as helping students who are still learning English in middle school, boosting early literacy, and paying for high school students to take community college courses.

He said nearly $400 million of the promised cost savings would help pay for that longer school year he advocates. But that proposal would insert a state mandate into an area that’s historically been an area of significant local control.

Buehler proposed replacing Oregon’s current requirement of 900 hours of instruction (990 for high school students) with a 180-day school year, by the 2021-22 school year.  

Buehler’s critique invoked exasperated Portland parents who disparage the fall, with the many holes in the fall calendar that lead to the moniker, “no school November.” However, administrators in rural districts often prefer the hourly requirement, which allows dozens of Oregon school districts to operate four days per week, thus saving money on transportation and utilities costs.

Speaking to reporters, Buehler was not sympathetic to school districts that might prefer continuing the four-day schedule, even if those school days had longer hours.

“There’s clear evidence and correlation between high graduation rates and the length of the school year,” Buehler told reporters.

And it’s not like rural districts could just run their cost-saving shorter weeks all summer under a Buehler administration, as the Republican said he prefers a calendar “from after Labor Day to mid-June.”

The Democratic Party of Oregon released a statement criticizing Buehler’s announcement as “predictably light on content but heavy on misleading information.” Democrats blasted Buehler’s record on education, arguing the central Oregon legislator voted against higher levels of school spending twice in the last three years.

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s campaign spokesman, Christian Gaston, also criticized Buehler’s policy approach.

“Gutting teacher compensation and creating new, unfunded state mandates for local school districts isn’t an education plan,” Gaston said.

Brown is running for her first full term as governor, after the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2015. Buehler, meanwhile, will need more than a single term as Oregon governor to accomplish his “bottom five to top five in five years” plan.

“With the successful show in solving some of these big issues, I’m confident there’ll be a second term in the Buehler administraton,” he said.