The lack of progress in closing the funding gap is frustrating, said Brian Reeder, Oregon Department of Education (ODE) assistant superintendent, but outlines a major point of the report. Without revenue reform, it's going to be difficult to get the high educational outcomes that Oregonians expect.
The QEM report is produced every two years by the Quality Education Commission. The commission was established by the Legislature in 1999 to determine the amount of funding needed to meet the state's education goals.
The report will be a foundation for education advocates to urge the Legislature to buoy support for schools in the upcoming legislative session.
Before the 2015 session, the QEM estimated the funding gap for K-12 schools at $2.38 billion. However, the Legislature appropriated more money than expected, narrowing the gap to $1.78 billion. For the 2017-19 biennium, the gap is estimated to grow to $1.99 billion. The $210 million increase is due entirely to the expected increase in the employer contribution rate for the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).
With the ongoing focus on schools and funding, the timing may be ripe for the Legislature to take the QEM report to heart, said Mary Alice Russell, a commission member and superintendent of the McMinnville School District.
"I think people really want to do what's right for students and K-12 schools," she said. "Oregon schools have been underfunded. If we want to provide quality opportunities for students, we need more resources."
According to the report, inflation-adjusted funding for schools has been flat for 25 years, yet expectations for students keep growing. Education funding in Oregon continues to be about 11 percent below the national average. That is a dramatic decline from 1990 (before passage of Measure 5 and 50 property tax limitations) when Oregon stood 6 percent above the national average.
Rather than point fingers of blame, the report's aim is to provide insight into how money is spent and the expected benefits from funding different initiatives, said Reeder. For example, how much would it cost to reduce class sizes in the early grades and what would the benefits be relative to the cost?
"The real hope of the commission is that the Legislature will look at this," Reeder said. "If we don't have enough money for the entire package, where will we get the most bang for the buck?"
Among the bright spots in the report is that Oregon's high school graduation rate is steadily inching higher. It rose to 74 percent in 2014-15, up from 68 percent in 2008-09. The report outlined recent analysis by ODE that could help in developing policies to increase graduation rates. But again, funding is critical, said Russell.
"Often leaders in the state ask questions such as why the graduation rate is not where we want it to be," she said. "Then we look at the number of days schools are in session and funded and see that we have one of the shortest school years in the nation."
Recommendations outlined in the QEM report (see the full report):
- The Legislature should appropriate at least $9.1 billion to the State School Fund in 2017-19. The Legislature should also increase spending for high-quality pre-K programs.
- The Legislature should take action to raise more revenue.
- Schools must start early to assure that all students read at grade level by third grade. The state should continue the investment it has made in pre-K programs and full-day kindergarten.
- The state must increase its understanding of the social, economic and cultural factors that impact students, so it can allocate resources and develop strategies that help districts improve the achievement of specific student groups: students in the early grades, where literacy development is critical to later learning; English Language Learners, whose high school graduation rates soar if they are proficient in English before entering high school; economically disadvantaged students, who face challenges both inside and outside the classroom; male students, who graduate at lower rates than females with similar academic achievement; and Native American students, who face exceptional challenges.
- Schools must provide more individualized instruction time, particularly for struggling students.
- The Quality Education Commission, ODE and other partners should continue evaluating practices that promote college readiness and success in post-secondary programs and to tell the stories of successful schools.