Ted Kulongoski has visited a lot of public schools in his 40-plus-year public career, and he can get a good read on the quality and effectiveness of an institution very quickly.
So what were the former two-term Oregon governors impressions after touring Woodburn High School last week?
It was one of the most impressive things Ive seen, he said in an interview before a press conference at Legion Park Thursday afternoon. I came away with the idea that the students there are very proud of their school and feel that comfort a school building should provide.
The visit and press conference were arranged by a coalition promoting Initiative Petition 65, a ballot measure for which Kulongoski serves as chief petitioner, which would enact a targeted approach to curbing Oregons high school dropout rates, creating and expanding opportunities for early college credit and making career technical education available at every school district in the state.
It was Kulongoski who, early in his second term, threw down the gauntlet with the ambitious 40-40-20 goal: to have 40 percent of adults holding at least a bachelors degree, 40 percent earning an associate degree or other professional certificate and all Oregonians having high school diplomas by the year 2025. The Legislature agreed with Kulongoskis vision, and in 2007, made it the law of the land.
He said the nationwide graduation rate comparisons of the past few years, in which Oregon has consistently finished lower than almost every other state in the country, have been a wake-up call to him and others about how far the Beaver State is from reaching its lofty goals.
For a number of us, those initial statistics were very embarrassing, Kulongoski admitted. The reality is were not doing what we should be doing if only 72 percent of our students are graduating in four years.
He went on to say state and local leaders have a moral imperative to act.
The graduation rate is not only an embarrassment to Oregon, its morally wrong to have 30 percent of our children dropping out of school, he said. This is not a time that we can just stand around wringing our hands. We have to do something about it ... or were going to end up spending more money on prisons than schools.
IP65, which is proposed for Oregons general election ballot in November, would use approximately $280 million of money expected to be generated from economic growth in the next biennium to fund vocational education programs, expand college credit courses and provide support for students to stay on track to graduation.
Woodburn has gained attention in the state and across the country in recent years for its high graduation rates, which are significantly higher than the state average despite the district being largely comprised of populations that tend to struggle academically, including English language learners and the economically disadvantaged. The district was used as a model by current Gov. Kate Brown during her State of the State address earlier this year, as she made similar points about the need to improve Oregons dismal academic performance.
But despite its success, Woodburn Superintendent Chuck Ransom said his district could still be positively impacted by a measure like IP65.
One thing we havent quite figured out in Woodburn is how to connect kids beyond graduation, he said. Getting a diploma is great, but its not the end of the line. Were just not really connected with a lot of career and business opportunities for our students, and we need additional support.
Toya Ficke, also chief petitioner of the measure and executive director of Stand for Children for Oregon, said this is exactly what IP65 is designed to do, by boosting the states funding for CTE programming, which is currently just a fraction of what other states, like Washington, spend.
School officials tell us they know that just getting students across the stage is not enough, she said, referring to high school graduation. Students need stronger connections with real world options post-high school. With IP65 dollars, Woodburn could build career technical education programs that do just that.
For more information about IP65, visit ip65.org.