Lawmakers, candidates address education funding, concerns
In any election year, one of the topics of most importance to voters is education. With that in mind, the Clackamas Education Service District (ESD) hosted an education-themed candidates forum on Oct. 3.
Candidates for House District 52 — Rep. Jeff Helfrich (R-Hood River) and Anna Williams (D-Hood River) — and for Senate District 26 — Sen. Chuck Thomsen (R-Hood River) and Chrissy Reitz (D-Hood River) — were among those in attendance.
Several adminstrators and parents from school districts around the county attended. Some, including Estacada's superintendent Ryan Carpenter, gave presentations to segue between questions.
There seemed to be an overall concensus that education should be a top priority in the Legislature, but it was the methods of implementing that prioritization that varied among candidates.
The first question posed to the forum was about education funding: "What will you do to make this next budget cycle look different?"
Reitz offered that if she were elected, "What we'd look at first is what we're spending money on and what programs are working and what aren't."
Reitz, chairwoman of the Hood River County School Board, cites her experience with educational policy as a resource for her candidacy.
She added that it's difficult to know what to spend money on without numbers to show where the funding should be prioritized.
"To begin addressing the funding issues related to Oregon's education system, I belive we must first gain further understanding and accountability when it comes to money we are already spending on education," she said in her written response. "I believe Oregon should find creative, sustainable ways to invest more funds into education overall, including looking into the ways we currently allocate funds and work to make education funding the top budget priority it deserves to be."
Reitz' opponent, incumbent Thomsen, called upon his legislative experience, saying he'd continue to work for a "robust education budget" as he always has.
"The money is certainly there," he noted in his written response. "Over the past 15 years or so, it has become standard practice to wait until the end of session when extra funding is dried up to fully fund K-12 and higher education. We can get in front of that problem by locking it in first."
Williams, candidate fo House 52, insisted that "we need to first trust the teachers and administrators in the different districts when they say 'this is what I need,'" and "empower" educators and students.
"My focus will be on adequate funding for rural schools, protecting schools in small towns from closure and ensuring students across the state have access to an education that enables them to continue on to college, technical education, or move into the workforce upon graduation," Williams explained in her written statement.
Helfrich of House 52 has, similar to Thomsen, worked in his time in the Legislature to be proactive in finding funding for education, drafting legislation to examine "the impact of not providing funding at the Quality Education Model levels and whether the funding formula the state should follow for fully funding education/QEM level is the Superintendent's Proposal."
Candidates at the forum confronted an ESD-generated statement citing Oregon has having "the highest prevalence of mental illness in the nation, and our county's suicide rate is 16 percent above the national rate."
Children as young as elementary school levels are affected by these statistics, the ESD noted, leading to the question "How can schools partner with lawmakers to address the social and emotional well-being of our children and their families?"
For Thomsen, the topic tied back to funding.
"Fully funding schools, as well as components of Measure 98, all involve investments into counselor programs," Thomsen said. "I'm fully aware that if the basic needs of students aren't met, such as nutritional and emotional well-being, their ability to thrive in the classroom plummets."
Reitz cited identifying "at-risk students" early as a needed step in the right direction, while also agreeing that this comes as a result of fully funding schools.
"In general, I believe the state needs to ensure adequate funding for school districts so that we can hire an appropriate workforce, which in this case means counselors and support staff," she added.
Williams agreed with Reitz on identifying at-risk students, and also examining the catalysts of said risks. She also suggested a possible increase in "access to school-based health centers" and the need to address potential stresses on not only students, but families, which may in turn affect student productivity.
Though student populations at districts like Oregon Trail are constantly increasing, there's an ever-decreasing pool of qualified educators.
Part of this is because of teacher burnout. To preface the question "As a statewide leader, what role can you play to ensure Oregon's public schools continue to be staffed and led by high quality professionals?" Estacada School District Superintendent Ryan Carpenter noted that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave in their first five years of teaching; that one third of Oregon's teacher workforce is eligible to retire today; and that while children of color account for 26 percent of the student population, only 7 percent of the staff population are an ethnicity other than Caucasian.
As for attracting and retaining quality educators, Reitz said "ensuring we have healthy communities for educators to work and live in is a good step in addressing this issue."
"That means affordable housing options close to where they work, good wages and benefits, safe and efficient transportation to and from work and adequate health-care services," Reitz added. "These are all areas I intend to improve on the state level when elected to the Senate."
Both Helfrich and Thomsen spoke of House Bill 4044 in reponse — a bill Helfrich introduced and Thomsen sponsored.
"In my view, it was pretty good attempt for a legislative body at addressing this — a direction for the Chief of Education Office to study recruitment, mentoring, professional development and retention," Thomsen said.
Williams argued that a key not only to properly funding education, but to retaining teachers is "trust."
"The Legislature needs to stop issuing unfunded mandates to our educators and trust that they are highly qualified, highly ethical and incredibly dedicated to the well-being of our students," Williams wrote in a statement. "(We should be) making sure we're not using Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) as a weapon against educators."
She added that standardized testing and requiring teachers to get all students to a certain benchmark by a specific time in their academic careers "takes the joy and creativity out of learning."
"(We need to) trust teachers, have high expectations and hold the ones who don't succeed accountable through a step-wise process where they are given good feedback and opportunities to learn and grow," Williams said.
In recent years, in an effort to increase student safety, the state has implemented SafeOregon — a tip line through which students and community members can report potential threats to student safety. Several districts use it, or, like Oregon Trail, have other similar measures in place.
That said, safety is still a huge concern for parents and students themselves.
Thomsen used Sandy High School and Oregon Trail School Districts efforts regarding student safety as an example in his written statement.
"Bullying is a huge issue," he said. "Sandy High School made reforms for inflow/outflow of students and expanded cooperation with the Sandy Police Department for the purpose of safeguarding against potential violence — I would be curious to know if that had any positive influence on the issue of bullying. Now that I sit on the Education Policy Committee, I'm willing to partner with schools to encourage whatever is needed for students to be and feel secure."
Reitz tied the overall idea of student safety back to the needed initial evaluations and identification of "at-risk" students, and also the identification of effective physical infrastructure changes and programming in schools.
Williams echoed Reitz' concerns.
"We can build a system where reports are tracked with regard to patterns," she said. "Rather than each report about a concerning individual being separate incidents, we need to be able to develop patterns about individuals with multiple reportes against them.
"As a violence educator myself, we can make great strides just by teaching students (in health classes, gym classes, social studies, history) about the characteristics of healthy relationships, what to do if you find yourself in an unhealthy relationship (dating or friendship) and how to seek help from trusted adults," she added.