Let's talk about REAL education reforms
Oregon is failing its public school students.
We've known this for years. Talking about it hasn't helped. Occasional infusions of cash from the Legislature have only been hindered by budget cuts in subsequent years.
As Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson recently noted, Oregon's four-year high school graduation rate was an "embarrassingly low 75 percent in 2015-16."
Oregon is almost 10 percent below the national average and has ranked among the worst five states for five years in a row, Richardson wrote.
We're not convinced that a four-year graduation rate is the best benchmark by which to judge the state's education system. Many students need more time to get their diploma because of a disability or mid-school trauma or a lack of parental support.
When you look at the five-year high school completion rate, which includes the now-much-harder GED diploma, the figure jumps to 82 percent for 2015-16. That's better, but indicates there's plenty of room for improvement.
None of this is new. We've known that these statistics were abysmal for years now.
So we were heartened when the Oregon Senate and the Oregon House announced last week the creation of a Joint Committee on Student Success.
This isn't just another blue-ribbon legislative panel. The Joint Committee on Student Success is patterned after the innovative and — in our thinking — wildly successful Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization.
That committee spent a year — in 2016 and 2017 — touring the state, talking to people all over, and getting input from local governments, farmers, business people, voters, and transportation professionals.
When the committee was done, it put together a bipartisan proposal, with membership from both the House and Senate, for consideration in the 2017 legislative session.
The $5.3 billion package of transportation projects — the largest anyone in this state has seen in decades — pays for repairs to highways, city transportation projects, bus transit, walking and bike paths, bridges ... you name it.
Nobody predicted in early 2016 that the transportation committee would come up with such a wide-sweeping proposal. Or that it would easily clear the "super-majority" hurdles in both chambers with bipartisan support.
But they did. And it did.
Now legislative leaders want to do the same thing for public schools.
The 14-member education committee will kick off right after the 2018 short legislative session ends in March, putting it on roughly the same schedule — and path — as the transportation panel. The bi-partisan committee will tour the state to hold hearings and to gain insight from urban, suburban and rural communities, and from conservative, moderate and liberal parents, teachers and students.
A year from now, as the long 2019 session gets set to begin, will we be talking about a comprehensive, big-picture set of education reforms, including both content (what is taught, and how), as well as funding reform?
We'd better be.
Doing the same thing year after year — arguing about two sets of budget numbers, and citing "best practices," and shaking our heads when state graduation rates remain in the bottom five nationally — won't do it anymore.
Luckily, the new committee got a jump-start, even before it was formed. A year ago, the state's revamped Chief Education Office released a report looking at Oregon's graduation rates. It had plenty of academic analysis, but also some common sense observations, gleaned during conversations with more than 1,000 Oregonians across the state, including many students and parents representing groups that have historically been ill-served by the state's education system.
The report makes it clear that boosting the graduation rate is not enough. Oregon must prepare its kids for life after high school — so they can be productive members of the state's economy and their local communities.
In the first meeting of the Joint Committee on Student Success last week, Senate President Peter Courtney compared the process to the successful work on the transportation plan and also offered some context.
"I'm not going to kid you," he said. "Transportation was a tall mountain to climb. This is Mount Everest. But by addressing these issues, we can set Oregon on a path for an extraordinary future."
Past attempts at reaching that summit have faltered. Vera Katz's Education Act for the 21st Century (1991), the Quality Education Model (1999) and the Oregon Chalkboard Project (2004) all raised hopes that significant education reform was possible. All contributed to improving students' academic lives, but none were able to forge a path to sustainable improvements.
This Joint Committee on Student Success isn't guaranteed to succeed.
It's just guaranteed not to be the same-old, same-old. And that's something.