Schools are on the Oregon ballot in a big way this year.
The corporate tax initiative, Measure 97, would raise billions — much of it for schools. Scan down a little further and Measure 98 would direct state funding to high school programs for dropout prevention, college readiness and career training. It would not raise taxes, but it is raising concerns among some educators.
Gov. Kate Brown recently visited Portland’s Madison High School to see how career education helps students graduate.
“I believe these types of programs give students hands-on learning experiences that awaken them to the power of their own potential,” Brown said, after touring Madison’s medical and digital design programs.
Funding would follow students, much the way Oregon’s per-student funding formula does now, with larger school districts such as Salem-Keizer and Portland Public Schools being eligible for the largest sums, more than $10 million per year.
“Within four years, we should see an increase in the overall graduation rate of six points, above the current trend line, and higher than that for low-income students,” said Tim Nesbitt, one of the measure’s architects and a past advisor to two Oregon governors.
Nesbitt’s numbers come from a study that consulting firm ECO Northwest conducted with the help of the Bend-La Pine School District at the behest of Measure 98 supporters.
Measure 98 wouldn’t raise taxes and doesn’t have a funding source. Nesbitt said there will be money in state coffers to pay for it.
“We have more people working and paying taxes in Oregon than ever before,” Nesbitt said. “We’re going to have the highest level of state revenues we’ve ever had.”
But costs are increasing, too. Oregon’s legislative fiscal office forecasts a $1.3 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget.
That’s after years of funding schools below recommended levels. Educators like Pat Burk are concerned.
Burk worked near the top of the Oregon Department of Education and Portland Public Schools before joining the faculty at Portland State University.
“There are a lot of unfunded needs in our schools,” Burk said. “But this sets aside $800 per high school student to do only three things.”
Burk notes that career-technical education, especially, requires big upfront investments in equipment and expert staff. Measure 98 is not a constitutional amendment, so lawmakers don’t have to commit to the measure’s $150 million per year in the years to come. And with rising state costs on the horizon, like public employee retirement funds, Burk calls the funding “iffy.”
“The lack of certainty of the funds moving into the future, coupled with the increase in PERS costs, have given me a lot of reason to question the wisdom of Measure 98 at this time,” Burk concluded.
Measure 98 has the support of numerous business and labor groups, but the statewide teachers union (the Oregon Education Association) quietly opposes it.
It was endorsed by the Oregon School Boards Association, some months ago. But one of its board members – Paul Anthony – said he wound up voting “no,” when he filled out his own ballot last week.
“I had thought that this would be good for the schools and good for Oregon,” Anthony said. “Now, yes, I’m changing my mind.”
Anthony is on the Portland school board, and has kids at Benson Polytechnic High School. He loves career education. But Measure 98 requires districts to “establish and expand” opportunities, not just maintain efforts, like Benson’s.
Anthony is worried about balancing a budget if the corporate tax initiative, Measure 97 fails, but Measure 98 passes.
“That is going to be an enormous unfunded mandate on the district, for which there will be no money,” Anthony said. “That will put us in a world of hurt going forward.”
Measure 98 backer, Tim Nesbitt, said there would be money for it, regardless of what happens with Measure 97.
“I know there’s always 1 to 2 percent of the budget in play in any given budget period,” Nesbitt said. “What we’re talking about here is a commitment of new state resources amounting to about 1.4 percent to tackle what is arguably the most important and compelling problem to solve in our K-12 school system.”
The debate isn’t just about where the money would come from. It’s also about where it would go. Measure 98 focuses on high school.
But some contend that if you’re looking at using hands-on learning to keep kids in school you should start in middle school.
Backers acknowledge that it’s not just Oregon high schools that need help. But they say research shows the strategies in Measure 98 can turn many potential dropouts into graduates, in the years to come.