Oregon’s school system is near the national basement on some critical measures, such as graduation rates and attendance patterns. With the re-election of Gov. Kate Brown this week, and with her party now dominating both legislative chambers, Democrats can pursue an aggressive agenda on education — a key priority and a huge area of state spending.
At a meeting in Salem on Thursday, legislators on a special committee tasked with solving what’s ailing Oregon’s schools struck an optimistic tone. Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said lawmakers have told him for months to not shy away from ambitious proposals.
“They have always said ‘go big’ and ‘this is not the time to incrementally fix things,’” Roblan said. “We can come up with something that is that game-changer for education and for our kids.”
The Joint Interim Committee on Student Success spent the last eight months logging some 2,700 miles from Baker City to Coos Bay, on a tour of at least 10 communities and nearly 50 schools. They wrapped up their last of 10 public hearings last month, to go along with seven business roundtables and numerous conversations with students and teachers.
What Roblan is calling a potential “game-changer” emerged as a lengthy wish list of policy changes and spending priorities at the legislative meeting. Members were quick to point out it’s a starting point.
“These are draft proposals and policies, and there will be more. And they will change,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend.
Mental Health, Poverty In Schools
Strategies to improve public schools may change, but the problems have not. The goal posts are clear: better graduation rates through improvements starting before kids show up to school all the way through how to keep school relevant as older students plan for college and careers.
It's a monumental task made harder by the problems that show up at school, but aren't within the typical expertise of teachers and principals. On the top of that list is the mental health of young people.
Legislators said they heard about students struggling psychologically and emotionally at virtually every community and every school they visited, from “classroom-clearing” disruptions among the state’s youngest students to high schoolers dealing with depression and thoughts of suicide.
For some on the committee, it was a shock.
“The burdens that they carry, and the fears that they have about what’s going on in the world today — wow, that’s really getting in the way of their education,” said Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass.
For others, it was a chilling reminder of complaints they’ve heard repeatedly. Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, was a school board member in Lebanon before she was elected to the Oregon House.
“We’re hearing the same things I’ve heard at least for years and years. Obviously, the mental health needs came up in every forum, every round table, every single time, every single school. It’s a huge, huge issue,” Sprenger said.
Legislators also brought up problems like inadequate housing, food and clothing — problems that have a direct effect on children’s experiences at school.
While these outside-of-education concerns were clearly concerns legislators heard on their statewide tour, mental health and basic personal needs like stable housing didn’t fit cleanly into the focus of the three subcommittees, which looked at school readiness, college preparedness and high-quality classrooms.
Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, was among several legislators interested in having further conversations with community care organizations and social service providers to address needs of students so they’re better able to learn at school. Smith Warner said she wanted to avoid creating a new social service system within schools if other agencies could address the problems.
“How do you maximize that connection between the students and their families and local providers? So, working on policy that promotes that,” Smith Warner said.
Long On Ideas, Short On Dollar Signs
One reason committee members may have shied away from directly confronting outside-the-classroom issues is they have plenty of problems to address inside of schools. And those alone will be expensive and controversial as they turn from ideas into legislative proposals.
Committee members from both parties frequently agreed on problems, and even on promising solutions. For instance, Oregon high school students who are part of a career-technical program have graduation rates as much as 15 percentage points higher, on average, than students who aren’t in CTE programs.
Legislators want to plow more money into CTE, including by fully funding Ballot Measure 98, which voters approved in 2016 as a way to invest nearly $300 million into high school programs, including CTE. But the Oregon Legislature approved only $170 million in 2017.
Everyone seems to also agree that Oregon students should spend more time in class. Extending the school year is a popular proposal likely to improve student learning, but it’s also expensive.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said he wants Oregon schools to shift from a minimum hours requirement to a required number of days, and then pay schools based on how many days they operate.
“It’s $50 million a day, it’s a billion dollars if we add 20 days to the school year,” Hass said. “I think that’s what we should do … if we add the accountability controls to say, ‘This is what you’re going to do.'
“I don’t want to micromanage school districts, but I at least want to macromanage,” Hass argued.
Adding days was one of the few policy ideas that came with a dollar figure attached. One other that was offered came from Knopp, who suggested supporting school districts interested in diversifying their teaching force by subsidizing the education of aspiring educators. Knopp put the price tag at $27.5 million.
Knopp also backed limiting class sizes in accordance with the Quality Education Model — a set of educational improvements developed by an advisory committee to the Oregon Legislature. Funding the entire QEM would cost $2 billion beyond what Oregon is already spending on schools.
Knopp highlighted several other aspects of the QEM, such as adding counselors, librarians, TAG specialists as well as arts, music and physical education teachers to elementary schools, in addition to dedicated support for students with special needs.
“All these things come with a price tag, and we really think that it’s important,” Knopp said.
We Can’t Have It All
Even with legislative leaders pushing to “go big,” committee members on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the sky is not the limit when it comes to how expensive these plans can get.
“We can’t possibly do everything we want to do,” Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, pointed out. “Are we able to look at … what’s going to be the most effective change?”
Smith Warner, who chairs the committee, confirmed that she wanted committee members to prioritize policy ideas. At the same time, she aimed to flesh out an idea she’s calling “categorical spending,” which works off of a model like Measure 98 or the Quality Education Model. In that model, schools would get more money but it would have to be spent in specific ways.
Longer term, committee members said that the big spending ideas will have to be paired with ideas on raising revenue, as well as cutting costs. The “elephant in the room” was the state’s public employee retirement and health insurance systems, which have consumed a growing share of available tax dollars for services like public schools.
“We have a problem with our costs,” Knopp said. “They’re out of control. We’ve added 10 percent, biennium after biennium, and it seems like we’re further behind than we were four years ago. Part of that is our costs — they’re rising at a rate that’s not sustainable.”
Legislators spoke highly of teachers and classified employees who work with students every day. But the costs that legislators from both parties acknowledged are rising too quickly, tend to be connected to the very employees that make the public schools work — the benefits belonging to teachers.