Every child in Oregon deserves an excellent education — regardless of where the student lives or attends school, regardless of whether the student comes from a well-to-do family or an impoverished one, regardless of academic ability, and regardless of ethnicity or race or background.
Last week’s Department of Education report on graduation rates shows that is not the case in Oregon. But another report last week from the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Student Success provides a path forward.
Across Oregon, high school graduation rates increased by 2 percentage points last year to almost 79 percent. In Clatsop County, the rates ranged from 73.4 percent in Seaside to 94.3 percent in Knappa.
The improvement is welcome news, but it remains deeply concerning that one-fifth of public high school students fail to graduate within four years.
There also are vast variations among demographic groups. The graduation rate was 82 percent for girls but 75.6 percent for boys. Graduation rates generally were lower for students of color but higher for former English language learners. Only 54 percent of homeless students graduated within four years of high school.
As members of the Student Success committee said last week, the public has had enough. Oregon has been grappling with these issues for decades, with too little progress.
Insufficient funding has been a major obstacle, especially since voters’ passage of Measure 5 in 1990 put the onus on state government to fund public schools. But money is not the only issue. It’s how the money is spent.
On the one hand, the collaborative approach espoused by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Chalkboard Project has achieved profound academic gains and higher staff morale in participating school districts. On the other hand, the state’s recent audit report on Portland Public Schools shows “how a school district should not operate,” according to Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.
The bipartisan Student Success committee has abundant ideas for reforms — excellent ideas — but with a combined price tag of well over $3 billion. Not everything can be done.
The Legislature will significantly increase education spending. But PERS’ unfunded actuarial liability will consume a huge chunk of any additional money earmarked for reducing class sizes, extending the school year or making other improvements. The majority Democrats and Gov. Kate Brown must face up to their responsibility to rein in public pension costs, instead of wringing their hands over court decisions that overturned past reforms.
School districts must accept that additional funding will come with requirements for accountability in how that money is used. Unlike previous political endeavors that chased the educational flavor of the day, the Student Success committee based its recommendations on reality. Lawmakers visited more than 50 schools — from the coast to eastern and southern Oregon — and talked with hundreds of students, staff members, parents, business people, civic leaders and others.
This week, committee members are starting work on determining which proposals would achieve the greatest return on investment and how to pay for them. Their top priorities include the importance of early childhood education and the drastic need for more school counselors, mental health therapists and other behavioral health services — throughout the state.
In their letter submitting the Student Success report, the committee’s Democratic and Republican leaders wrote: “A student’s achievement should be a result of their own efforts, not their parents’ income or their race, ethnicity, or ZIP code. Unfortunately, factors entirely outside of a young person’s control too often determine their access to a high-quality education. Oregon’s students deserve a public education system that sets them up for success.”
That is the challenge for the 2019 Legislature. That is the challenge for Oregon.