Student Success Act will fund key school programs
The new Gresham High School performing arts center was designed — somewhat hopefully — to include an orchestra pit. Trouble is, the school doesn't have an orchestra.
But Gresham-Barlow School District administrators hope new money coming from recently passed state legislation will go far enough to add strings and an orchestra to the district's music programs and eventually an orchestra will play in the newly built orchestra space as well as existing bands.
Gresham-Barlow district leaders say the financial boost from the Student Success Act will allow them to add back some programs that were slashed long ago and bolster the services students and families need for students to be successful.
"It fundamentally changes the conversation" says Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Katrise Perera. "This time of the year used to be about what we can cut."
District Chief Finance Officer Mike Schofield called the Student Success Act "a once-in-a-career bill."
Gov. Kate Brown signed the Student Success Act on May 20. The legislation imposes a tax on some businesses and is expected to raise around $1 billion for each year in the next two years of the biennium.
The entire amount is dedicated to early childhood education and investment in kindergarten through 12th grade public schools.
For Gresham-Barlow's 12,000 students and 18 schools, that amounts to somewhere around $10 million each year in the next biennium, Schofield said.
Once the tax takes effect, the Oregon Department of Education will get some money to increase the agency's accountability and transparency.
About 20% of the Student Success Act money goes to early learning programs statewide, while around 30% will be spent around Oregon on funding Measure 98 and various equity initiatives. Oregon voters approved Measure 98 in 2016 with the goal of increasing Oregon's dismal high school graduation rates and improving career and college readiness. The Measure 98 money can be used to expand career and technical education, college-level educational opportunities for high school students and bolster drop-out prevention work.
The district will put the final 50% of the tax money, from the so-called Student Investment Account, into four "buckets" designated for smaller class sizes, more learning time, a "well-rounded" education, and health and safety issues.
Gresham-Barlow has reduced class sizes in kindergarten and first grade, but would use the new money to recruit and hire additional teachers to cut class sizes in grades two through 12.
Adding more learning time would not necessarily mean a longer school year, Perera said, but could mean extending a child's school years by offering pre-kindergarten, making the school day longer, or adding enrichment after school or in the summer.
"To improve long-term student outcomes, the district would seek to hire certified pre-K teachers as the starting point in a plan to create 'pre-K for all,'" read explanatory materials the district issued.
Assistant Superintendent Lisa Riggs is looking to keep up with state-mandated updates of textbooks and classroom materials and is examining "what arts need to come back."
The district will use part of the new state money to fund its "Pathways to Career Success." The Gresham-Barlow district has identified six career "pathways" and wants to include children as young as elementary school in thinking about potential careers. The rollout of the Pathways program will be over the next four to six years and focus on project-based learning.
Those pathways include: health sciences, industry and engineering, human and public services, natural resources, business and management and arts, information technology and communication.
Under the plan, elementary students will participate in two "career awareness" activities each year. Middle school student will complete two elective career explorations in one of the six pathways. Every middle school will also have a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) lab.
Perera says hands-on project-based learning is important for Pathways and in other ways.
"I don't know any employer that has hired anyone because they can fill out a bubble sheet" standardized test, she said.
Regina Norris, president of the Gresham-Barlow Education Association, said the teachers union's hope "is first and foremost on student and staff safety and class size."
There have been multiple news reports about teachers and students being injured or fearful because some students act out, even becoming violent in class.
"We want to make sure our teachers, students and staff are safe and successful," Norris added.
As part of this effort — and falling into the "health and safety" issues bucket — Perera said the district will bolster student mental health staff by hiring a yet-to-be-determined number of social workers and psychologists.
A lot of school districts still don't know all the details of the additional funding. The Oregon Department of Education is still working on the rules for the funds and how they will be dispersed to schools in the 2020-21 school year.
Perera said the district's plans are not specific enough yet to say how many teachers and support staff will be hired, for example. And the Student Success Act's future is not a sure thing. A business group, Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, is taking steps to get the tax on the ballot, requiring voters to approve it.
Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said the act is "unaffordable, ineffective and lacks transparency," much like the rest of the legislative session.
Others, like Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, said it will encourage Oregon businesses to export products out of the state to avoid the new tax.
But the act has some powerful backers, including Nike Inc., Oregon's largest public company, and teachers' unions.
The new school funding "is a positive change for Oregon. Not a lot of states are doing this," Perera said.
"We hope this carries a positive message to the community. It's a good investment of tax dollars" she added. "We will be good stewards of those dollars."
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