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MailTribune.com
  • Rethinking Oregon's public education system

  • In an earlier era in Oregon, it was not necessary to graduate from high school to stay out of poverty or even to get some "middle class" jobs, and preschool education was virtually unknown. But the world economy and labor markets have changed with new technologies and globalization. What will draw entrepreneurial businesses a...
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  • In an earlier era in Oregon, it was not necessary to graduate from high school to stay out of poverty or even to get some "middle class" jobs, and preschool education was virtually unknown. But the world economy and labor markets have changed with new technologies and globalization. What will draw entrepreneurial businesses and enterprising nonprofit groups to our state will be the skills of our workers and quality of life we offer. This means rethinking public education in Oregon and looking at educational models that we can learn from.
    If our economy is becoming more global, then we need to go beyond comparing Oregon's educational system with other states' and look seriously at what other countries are doing. Two lessons we can learn from abroad are looking more closely at the links between education, training and opportunity and recognizing that it is not just a matter of how much is spent on education; the way it is spent is also important.
    One example of how we can be penny wise and pound foolish is the role of preschool programs for low-income children and their success in the K-12 system and beyond. A lack of these programs in the U.S. compared to widespread adoption in Western Europe may help explain why almost one-fourth of U.S. students fail to graduate from high school, compared to 15 percent in the European Union. Without targeting early childhood needs in health, safety and early education, attempts to reform K-12 education will do little to increase upward mobility. Oregon has been slow to respond to two decades of evidence on the high rate of return to early childhood education, but that might be changing with new efforts by the Governor and state legislatures.
    Another area where we can learn from other countries is the role of vocational training in high school. With changes in global markets there will be a strong demand for workers with specialized vocational skills, demonstrated by the fact that one-fifth of all non-college graduates earn more than the average college graduate. But as traditional channels of vocational training in high school, the military and union apprenticeships have narrowed, their replacements have fallen short on both quality and affordability.
    Although only half of U.S. students graduating from high school enter two- or four-year colleges, vocational courses receive less attention in high school than they did a generation or two ago. In contrast, Germany's high-quality vocational programs teach reading and writing skills closely related to vocational training, and their students graduate with better mathematical, statistical and computing skills, on average, than many students in the U.S. Better vocational preparation in high school, perhaps paired with privately paid apprenticeships (such as unions used to provide) would increase opportunities for many young adults. The need for such programs has led many to turn to "for-profit" technical schools for vocational training. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has been disastrous for many young people.
    While federal grant aid to postsecondary students more than tripled in constant dollars between 2001 and 2011 it went disproportionately to private technical schools. With only 10 to 12 percent of all enrollments at for-profits, their students receive 25 percent of the funds and are responsible for 47 percent of the defaults on student debt. These defaults are not surprising, because 63 percent of those who enroll in a two-year program leave without a degree. Besides more state oversight of for-profit schools we need to provide more public vocational training options to our young people.
    Finally, although more students want to attend college in Oregon, state funding for higher education has not kept pace. As a result, an increasing share of costs have been shifted to students, so that tuition costs have gone up, on average, even faster than health care costs. In 1971, the average family spent 12 percent of income for tuition at a four-year public school, but that more than tripled to 40 percent by 2008. We need to make sure our universities provide an affordable liberal arts education that excels in the sciences and humanities. The financial difficulty SOU is facing today is a perfect example of how we have failed in this mission. It can restructure and eliminate as many programs as it wants, but continued reduced state funding, lack of clear leadership from the Oregon University System and relying on higher tuition to cover the bills will not give the university the resources it needs to create an excellent academic environment we all deserve.
    Time for a change?
    Richard Holt is a professor of economics at Southern Oregon University. His latest book, "A Brighter Future: Improving the Standard of Living Now and for the Next Generation," will be published this summer.
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