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State tries to avoid one-size-fits-all improvement proposals by tailoring plans to districts' needs

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Meme Branch talks about her high school experience with state Sen. Rob Wagner during a Joint Legislation Committee on School Success town hall.A small group of legislators spent a year compiling their wish list of improvements to Oregon's failing education system. Now they have five months to whittle it down to something realistic, find a way to fund it and sell the rest of their colleagues on spending up to $3 billion more on K-12 education. The state currently spends about $8.2 billion.

"We only get one chance to educate our children," said state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner. "They're only in first grade once, they're only in 10th grade once. We need to take advantage of that opportunity."

A report released Thursday details the wish list a legislative committee compiled after a summer of hearings and tours around Oregon. The report echoes much of what the committee already has said publicly is needed to improve schooling for Oregon's children. That includes a longer school year, more state-paid preschool, diversity among teachers and smaller class sizes.

PMG/EO MEDIA/SRIt also shows lawmakers have learned from past mistakes.

"Historically, the school state fund has not come with strings attached," said state Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, co-chair of the Joint Committee on School Success."What we are trying to do is to ... tie this funding to outcomes. It's not just, let's put more money in the state school fund."

That means school districts around Oregon might have to agree to measurable improvements to get and keep extra state money. The state would work with districts to come up with tailored plans. What works in a large, urban school might not be right for a school of just a couple hundred students, legislators said. If the districts follow through on the plan and see improvement, the state would continue paying for their initiatives.

"We want to focus on outcomes-based funding," Smith Warner said. "…What is most responsive to your community's needs, and how you're going to measure your success and how we're going to measure your success."

Bolstering services

The proposals would transform Oregon's school system in every way, from how the state intervenes with toddlers at risk of abuse to technical training for high school seniors who aren't college bound. Fewer kids would go hungry and more children in poverty would be able to go to preschool under the new plan.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - High School student Akili Kelekele, left, and statee Rep. Diego Hernandez, along with more students, chat during a Joint Legislation Committee on School Success town hall.Lawmakers emphasized bolstering services for low-income families with young children, starting the help at infancy. "Kids in crisis can't learn," Smith Warner said. "We have students all across the state, urban, rural, from the biggest schools to the smallest, that have had significant trauma. They're facing food insecurity, housing insecurity. The schools need to deal with that."

In that vein, legislators want to expand Early Head Start. It provides full-day programs for infants and toddlers from low-income families but is only available to 2,064 kids of the 25,000 eligible.

The group found the state wasn't adequately funding early intervention and early childhood special education. Full funding would cost an additional $37.5 million per year.

The legislators also propose propping up Oregon's most needy families. Committee members found state programs provide home visits to only 10 percent of 30,000 at-risk families who need such services.

The 84-page report stops short of outlining how to pay for all of these ideas. They have punted those questions to three smaller groups of lawmakers who on Thursday will sort out the details, including how to pay for these changes.

Lengthening the school year and limiting class sizes are among the most expensive recommendations. Committee members found Oregon's school year, which ranges from 150 days to 170 days, isn't enough. They would like to reach the national average of 180 days.

But adding those days would cost an estimated $258 million per year. And caps on class sizes — which would range from 20 in kindergarten and first grade to 29 for core academic glasses in grades 6 through 12 — would cost about $185 million per year.

Other goals reach higher, aspiring not to just fall in line with national averages but exceed them.

The legislators want state-subsidized education for teachers, with an emphasis on those going on to instruct career and technical education. A state-organized mentorship system would bump up salaries for teachers who agree to mentor others and create an advancement council inside the state education department to help teachers succeed.

Legislative budget analysts say the mentorship program could cost $234 million a year.

They also propose hiring more specialists like music teachers, librarians and school counselors.

Ideally, the state's teachers should reflect the state's demographic makeup, legislators said. Some money would be dedicated to helping local school districts "grow their own" future workforce with scholarships for students from "racially and linguistically diverse" backgrounds who want to become teachers.

'Need to prioritize'

Smith said he supports the committee's requests — but it's not clear if his fellow Republicans agree. In an interview this week, Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, dismissed the notion that more funding means better education. "I see private schools having less money but having better results," Baertschiger said. "I'm trying to figure out what's going on here."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Portland high school student Lydia Wade-Sully chats with Oregon legislators, including state Sen. Tim Knopp, right, during a town hall hosted by the Joint Legislation Committee on School Success."If we give them $2,000 per child more and we don't have better results in a few years, do we give them another $5,000?" Baertschiger continued. "I mean, when do we stop?"

To make it more palatable and not a shock to the economy, legislators would have to trim the package. "We need to prioritize," Kotek said "I will be the first one to say we are not going to be able to fund everything, so what are those key sets of investments we know will have the most return on investment in terms of the outcomes we want, and focus on that 'what' and then get to the 'how.'"

Kotek said revenue ideas should start to trickle out of committee hearings soon.

The legislators said for years, Oregon has failed to address school funding. If it's going to take a shot at reform, lawmakers need to make up for past neglect. It's time to aim big, they said.

"If there was ever a time in Oregon's history when we really needed to take a look at educating our children and getting maximum value for our dollar, it's now," Smith said.

Paris Achen, Aubrey Wieber and Claire Withycombe are reporters for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.

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