Governor sees big pay off in bigger education bucks
SALEM — Every school student in Oregon would be touched by the ambitious investment in education Gov. Kate Brown proposed Wednesday, Nov. 28.
Kids would be in school more days and many would have smaller classes. An additional 10,000 children would be learning their letters and numbers in expanded preschool, daycare or other early learning programs. More high school students would learn to build houses, cars and robots.
Brown wants nearly $2 billion on top of her basic education budget to carry out some of those plans. She also needs $800 million more just to stay even with existing programs. She wants a 180-day school year — considered a full year — in every district. Some rural school districts have students in school for as little as 135 days, according to the Oregon School Boards Association.
Brown thinks more time in class will translate into more academic success in a state where students consistently lag behind. Oregon's high school graduation rate ranks 48th in the country. Less than half of third graders in the 2015-16 school year met state standards for reading and math, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The governor's budget proclaims that her plan will "transform opportunities for our state and her people." She believes her plan will boost graduation rates, engage students and train them for the workforce.
"We know that by investing in career and technical education, by making sure our students have access to hands-on learning, that we can prepare students for the world of work, that we can create a skilled and diverse workforce, but also our kids are going to want to stay in school and graduate," Brown said.
Brown said teachers, students and parents have told her that crowded classrooms disrupt learning. "When we have large class sizes… students struggle to concentrate and struggle to learn," Brown said.
So she wants to hire more teachers and set a cap on the number of student in classes from kindergarten through third grade. School districts would assess how many new teachers they need to meet those targets.
Brown would limit kindergarten classes to 20 students and grades 1 through 3 to 23.
Last year, the median kindergarten class had 22 kids, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Across the state, 317 kindergarten classrooms had more than 25 students.
The median first-grade class had 23 students; second grade, 24; and third grade, 25.
Brown said that large classes have the most impact in those four grades.
About 580,000 kids were enrolled in Oregon K-12 schools in the last school year, according to state data.
Increased graduation rates
Brown urged lawmakers to pass a tax overhaul "to adequately fund our education system." Overall, she wants to spend $13.7 billion on education in the next two years.
Of Brown's proposed $2 billion boost, the largest single share — about $926 million — would go to K-12 schools to extend the school year, reduce class sizes and fully fund a measure passed by Oregon voters in 2016 to offer more career and technical education.
About $368 million would go to pay for day care and early childhood education, which her office said would prepare kids for kindergarten and give them social and academic skills to do well in elementary school and beyond.
And as college costs climb and graduates continue to struggle with student loans, $590 million would go to universities and community colleges to prevent tuition increases of more than 5 percent and would double state grants for low-income students who want to go to college.
Her proposal comes nearly two months before lawmakers convene for a five-month long legislative session.
Brown, re-elected to one final term as governor, endorsed many of the suggestions of a legislative committee that has been working on strategies to make students more successful.
The governor has also proposed cutting the state Chief Education Office, which works with state agencies and community groups to boost student outcomes from early childhood education to college and make the transitions between levels of education easier.
Much of that work would be moved directly into the governor's office.
The governor also believes teachers need professional mentors and continuing training to teach traumatized kids or come from diverse backgrounds.
Brown wants to give a state council $60 million to work on those goals. "Evidence suggests that when teacher populations reflect the diversity of student populations, students do better in school through higher test scores, increased attendance, and increased graduation rates," the governor said in her budget summary.
State officials think providing mentors and more training opportunities could reduce turnover among teachers. Some advocates said the governor's proposed surge in education funding was a good start.
"This is a very positive first step in moving toward funding education at a level that our children deserve," said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, in a written statement. "We look forward to working with Gov. Brown and legislative leaders to make some hard but necessary decisions on how to address nearly three decades of chronically underfunding our schools."
John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest union of teachers, said the governor's proposal was a "meaningful start."
"We know that Oregon has one of the shortest school years in the nation, one of the largest average class sizes, and graduation rates that must be improved due to decades of threadbare budgets and cuts," Larson said in a statement. "Obviously the status quo defined by these base budgets is unacceptable."
Toya Fick, executive director of the nonprofit Stand For Children Oregon, said more priority still had to be given to career and technical education.
Brown's base budget only partially funds those programs, Fick said, and would only provide all the money voters approved for those programs if the state drums up new revenue. "This is something that our students and our state need to happen — not just something that would be nice to invest in," Fick said in a statement.