A legislative report unveiled Thursday details a grim picture of Oregon’s public schools.
The report, created by lawmakers who spent the past several months traveling the state listening to students and teachers, highlights systemic issues with disheartening anecdotes: the student who was on the waitlist to see a school psychologist but committed suicide first, the math class packed with 45 students but only 40 desks, a rural community with 12 early learning slots available for every 100 children.
But what the report doesn’t include, is where the money — an estimated $3 billion — would come from to turn lawmakers’ wish list into a reality.
“People understand new investments would be very valuable,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said Thursday. “The question is how we pay for it.”
The Oregon Legislature is tasked with answering that question this session. Kotek said lawmakers have been aware of many of the problems identified in the report for ages, but she’s hoping this legislative session will be a game-changer for Oregon’s public schools.
“Although funding is not the only issue facing our schools,” the report reads. “Oregon has chronically underfunded its public education system.”
Here’s a look at some of the study group’s findings:
- There is a lack of available and affordable early learning openings for students.
- Early learning has a significant return on investment. Investing in students early improves their performance in the long term.
- Despite some improvements, Oregon’s graduation rate remains one of the worst in the nation.
- In many districts, schools are the social service hubs of the community. But there is a shortage of resources for mental health care, school counselors and school psychologists. Teachers, typically not trained in mental health counseling, often must use teaching time to try to address behaviors that are a result of adverse childhood experiences.
- Accountability between school districts and Oregon needs to improve and state funding needs to be tied to improved outcomes.
- There is a severe shortage of teachers in Oregon and a lack of racial and ethnic diversity within Oregon’s teaching population. There is also a shortage of teachers who specialize in math, science, special education and bilingual education
- Class size is a problem in the state’s urban and suburban districts, where many students also report not having regular access to art or music instruction or a library.
The group recommends that state leaders:
- Fully fund Measure 98, a voter-approved 2016 measure that carves out money to boost career and technical education programs
- Increase spending needs to be directed to improve behavioral and physical health services, hire more nurses and offer wider wraparound support services
- Identify a new dedicated stream of funding for education, tied to outcomes and ensuring money stays in the classroom. The legislative report comes on the heels of an audit revealing problems at Oregon’s largest school district and the state Department of Education.
- Boost efforts to ensure students are ready to learn when they enter school by expanding home visiting programs, prenatal care, engagement programs for new parents, increase early Head Sart and relief nurseries programs, fully fund early intervention and early childhood special education services.
- Boost the state’s subsidized preschool programs.
- Increase access to behavioral and physical health services and establish a funding source specifically for support services such as mental health care.
- Expand the number of students who qualify for free-reduced lunches or perhaps create a universal program where all students are eligible.
- Increase school days and learning time.
- Fund a three-to-six week summer learning program.
- Invest in programs aimed at lowering chronic absenteeism.
- Create or support culturally, linguistically responsive college and career navigation programs in middle and high schools.
- Create an early warning system to identify students at risk of dropping out and create an intervention program, such as a summer bridge program, to help keep those students in school and to help them re-engage youth between 16 and 21 who are no longer in school.
- Create a network of students to regularly advise lawmakers and take school climate surveys.
- Recruit and retain more qualified teachers, in part by creating a scholarship program for teachers, creating a mentorship program and establishing a needs-based loan forgiveness program.
- Limit classroom sizes, provide funding to support specialists from art teachers to school psychologists to special need teachers.
- Ensure high-performing students’ needs are met.
OPB reporter Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.