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Gov. Kitzhaber's proposed budget adds up to gains for education

The 2015-17 budget proposed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber shows the importance of both addition and subtraction.

The plan, released earlier this month, raises some important, and quite familiar, questions about this state’s K-12 education system: How much money is enough? When do statewide “reforms” simply become distractions from classroom learning? And who knows best how to spend billions of dollars in K-12 funding — local educators or state officials?

Kitzhaber’s proposed budget offers up $6.9 billion in school spending as a starting point for legislators, who come into session in January. That number is a 3.4 percent increase over what was provided to K-12 schools in the current biennium, but it comes with a number of caveats and those aforementioned reforms.

Kitzhaber proposes to prioritize early-childhood education, including full-day kindergarten, which is a worthwhile goal. But his budget does this at the expense of students making their way through the upper grades. Kitzhaber’s budget also would impose new ways of divvying up the money, potentially creating winners and losers among school districts. The governor’s proposal carves out dollars for other specific causes, and when taken together, all of these changes could mean less money overall — not more — for your neighborhood school.

Trimming local school calendars is particularly troubling prospect. According to the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, a child who attends public schools from K-12 in Oregon graduates with a full year less of classroom time than his or her counterparts in Washington.

Fortunately, the governor’s budget is merely the first step in a long process. Kitzhaber’s initial spending blueprint is likely to undergo major changes before the Legislature approves a final 2015-17 budget. That’s good, because our local lawmakers have a more direct connection to schools than does the governor’s office — and they will be in a better position to decide how K-12 dollars should be allocated.

When legislators talk with our local educators, they likely will hear that superintendents, principals and teachers would welcome just a little stability in their schools before they are required to make more changes. Already, Oregon is introducing new statewide assessments — the Smarter Balanced tests — that will challenge students like they’ve never been before. These tests are directly tied to the state’s adoption of the Common Core, which is still in progress.

The ever-increasing academic standards follow a time of financial insecurity for schools that only began to be corrected with the state’s current budget. Meanwhile, the demands on teachers and administrators only increase. As one metro-area superintendent noted, Oregon’s educators feel as if they are constantly running after a moving target.

That’s why they may not be cheering for even more changes envisioned in the governor’s budget. One proposal is to alter the funding formula for ELL students. Instead of allocating state revenue based on the number of English Language Learners in each district, the governor suggests distributing those dollars based on how quickly the ELL students become non-ELL students.

This concept has support from education reformers in Oregon, but it’s not something easily implemented. The end result could mean pushing students out of ELL before they are ready, or punishing districts with large immigrant populations. Legislators should move slowly with this type of reform, as unintended consequences will abound.

Legislators also should examine whether the state can afford the entirety of the governor’s focus on early-childhood learning. Additional money is targeted specifically for services to enable preschoolers to be ready to enter school, for full-day kindergarten in all districts, and for extra help so that 95 percent of third-grade students will read at that level or better in five years.

Kitzhaber is correct in saying that investments made upstream in education will pay off handsomely when those children get to high school and college. But the question is whether the shift in funding puts the upper grades at risk. The governor’s budget also shortchanges community colleges and the university system, so legislators will want to consider additional funding — if it becomes available — for the years beyond high school.

The governor’s budget isn’t robust in the area of education — and when you consider the portions earmarked for specific initiatives, it actually falls below current funding levels. The school administrator’s confederation estimates that the state education budget would have to jump to $7.5 billion to pay for Kitzhaber’s reforms and keep existing programs at their current levels.

For most parents, and communities, taking a step backward won’t be acceptable. And that means the state’s legislators must work to make the budget better. 

 

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