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Time to act is now for Oregon's future

Oregon’s graduation rate hovers between 78 percent for four-year cohorts and

85 percent including fifth-year and GED students (as the majority of states calculate graduation rates). Depending how you measure it, Oregon is either in 48th place, or just average — either result is failing kids.

Last year’s bipartisan Joint Committee on Student Success traveled the state in hopes of identifying grass-roots solutions to increasing Oregon’s graduation rate and closing the achievement gap. Big or small, metropolitan or rural districts, the feedback across the state was consistent from students, teachers, administrators, community and business leaders.

Teachers and schools are ill equipped to deal with the increase in explosive behaviors and kids entering school not ready to learn. There is insufficient funding to provide struggling students the support they need, academically or behaviorally. The lack of access to (affordable) college and career readiness is impacting students and the Oregon economy. Student-to-teacher ratios in Oregon are the sixth highest in the nation, and the school term is among the shortest.

The committee’s published recommendations are 25 pages long, and would cost over

$3 billion to implement them all. But the governor has focused on some strategic recommendations which would require additional revenues to implement but would bring a big return on investment:

  • Fully fund Measure 98 for drop-out prevention, college and career readiness, and expanded career technical education in high schools: $133 million.
  • Reduce class sizes in K-3 to align with Quality Education Model (K-1; 20 students, grades 2-3; 23 students): $163 million.
  • Expand access to early childhood education and intervention for low-income families to serve 100 percent of eligible children through a combination of Oregon Pre-K, Preschool Promise, Early Childhood Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education services: $300 million.
  • Expand funding for mental health/behavioral counselors in schools to recommended ratio of 1 to 250 students: $238 million.

All of these strategies are proven and research-based.

All of these strategies have been shown to improve student achievement and graduation rates.

All of these strategies require new revenue to fund them.

What that revenue might consist of is unknown. What we do know is this: Oregon funding per student (inflation adjusted) has stagnated since the early 1990s due to shrinking revenues from the property tax and corporate income tax.

We also know education funding in Oregon is extremely volatile due to over-reliance on the personal income tax. Oregon’s insane kicker law makes it nearly impossible to put money aside for future economic downturns. Historically, kicker rebates have been followed by massive statewide cuts in education; cuts that could have been avoided if the kicker had been put in a rainy-day fund.

Revenue reform will take bold leadership. The Legislature must produce a bipartisan solution that involves stakeholder input from education and business leaders. The solution must address the stability as well as the adequacy of funding. It must include solutions for controlling increasing costs in health care and PERS.

If you believe, as I do, that education is the most critical component of a robust and thriving economy, then the time to invest in education is now.

Oregon’s future depends on it.

Karen Starchvick is a member of the Medford School Board. The opinions expressed here are her own.