Brown earns four more years to improve education, but her vision will call for more money
Gov. Kate Brown’s education goals will likely require some combination of revenue reform and cost containment.
Brown, who won re-election Tuesday, offered a vison of a “seamless system of education from cradle to career” that includes more state-supported preschool spots, a 180-day school year, smaller class sizes in K-3, more equity-related support services and fully funding Measure 98.
Brown said she plans “dedicated, thoughtful and incremental” improvement to Oregon’s K-12 system over the next four years.
Republican challenger Knute Buehler said Brown wasn’t moving fast enough, making education a central campaign issue. He said Oregon’s mediocre education performance showed a lack of leadership.
During the campaign, Brown highlighted that under her administration education spending increased $1.5 billion and the graduation rate increased 5 percentage points, with even larger gains with communities of color.
But Oregon’s 77 percent graduation rate in 2017 was among the worst in the nation. Brown’s proposed budget for the 2017-19 State School Fund was less than what the Legislature ultimately passed, and the Public Employees Retirement System has eaten up much of the increased funding. PERS costs have more than doubled since 2015-17, with school districts expected to pay $1.3 billion for 2019-21.
Brown’s educational goals will require more school investment, which has statewide appeal, but only if education advocates, business interests and both political parties can agree to terms. OSBA is advocating for revenue reform and cost containment measures in the 2019 Legislature, and it will require political leadership to reach a deal on spending and accountability. Democrats won supermajorities in both legislative chambers Tuesday, making it easier for Brown to push revenue reform.
“We have struggled to provide stable and adequate revenue to fund our K-12 education system,” Brown said in an interview last week. “We have to have more revenue on the table.”
Toya Fick, executive director of Stand for Children Oregon, said that if we don’t pay for education now, we will pay for it later with lower graduation rates and students unprepared to contribute.
“We need a grand bargain of revenue and cost containment,” she said. “If we want a world-class education, it will cost us a little more.”
Fick says it’s not just about how much money but also how it is spent. She said full funding for more early learning, a longer school year and Measure 98 need to top the list. Stand for Children was the driving force behind the 2016 measure. It was supposed to provide schools about $150 million per year for career and technical education, college readiness and dropout prevention. Brown proposed $75 million a year, and the Legislature allocated $85 million.
Fick said Stand for Children wants to see Brown make education a priority, similar to the way she did with the transportation package. In 2017, the Legislature passed a $5.3 billion package of taxes and fees to fund transportation projects after a joint legislative committee spent more than a year touring the state to meet with stakeholders. The Joint Interim Committee on Student Success was modeled after the transportation committee.
Brown said she is waiting to see the Student Success Committee’s December report to see where her education vision aligns with the Legislature and other education stakeholders and to decide where to make “significant investments.” The bipartisan legislative committee has been holding hearings around the state for nearly a year to assess what it would take to improve Oregon’s education system.
Brown said changing the education system will require the same supermajority consensus-building process that created the transportation package and Oregon Health Plan legislation. She also said elected officials must build public support so that any revenue reform wouldn’t be undone by referendum.
“We didn’t know how we were going to fund the transportation package, but we were able to agree on what we wanted to accomplish,” she said.
The Quality Education Model, a biennial report on best practices for Oregon schools and their costs, recommends many of the same things Brown wants to accomplish. But she said fully funding the model was not one of her goals.
Brown favors targeted spending for specific education initiatives. She said the state must use funding as a “lever of accountability,” otherwise it is just writing blank checks with no guarantee of desired outcomes.
“When we invest in career and technical education, I want to make sure it is spent that way,” Brown said.
Members of the Quality Education Commission, which created the model, disagree.
“Don’t do very specific dedicated funding,” said Beth Gerot, co-chair of the commission and a former Eugene School Board member.
Gerot said the commission encourages local decision-making because what works in one district might not be appropriate for another. She said Oregon needs to give school board members and administrators the tools to make good decisions and the money to carry out proven programs.
Oregon Business Council Vice President Jeremy Rogers said the governor “needs to make fixing Oregon’s broken fiscal system the No. 1 priority.”
Rogers said any solution will require revenue reform to create stability, and he suggested using the personal kicker to create a rainy-day education fund. He said business owners are open to corporate tax increases paired with PERS and other spending reforms but only if the money is directed into classrooms.
Oregon Business & Industry President and CEO Sandra McDonough said revenue reform is a top priority of her organization as well, with an eye toward cost controls and stability.
“Until the rising share of PERS pensions in public budgets is checked, even new revenues can’t guarantee funding for priority investments in education, health care and other vital services,” she said in a statement.
Actuaries estimate PERS will average 29 percent of school districts’ payroll in 2019-21 before including side account offsets. Brown’s plans to address the PERS burden relies mostly on encouraging districts to invest in side accounts.
Business and employer groups, including OSBA, asked PERS in August to analyze specific cost-saving measures, including capping salaries for benefit calculations and requiring employee contributions.
Brown wants to improve PERS investment returns and she supports public employees’ bearing some of the market risk, but she flatly rejects changes to PERS benefits.
“Here’s what I know we shouldn’t do: Cut teacher retirements,” she said.
Oregon Education Association President John Larson said that in light of a national teacher shortage those states that offer competitive pay packages will likely attract the best candidates.
Brown’s goal of a 180-day school year, up from about 165 days, would also affect teacher compensation. Larson said the costs would depend on local negotiations that consider other factors such as class sizes, professional development and student needs.
Larson also pins expectations on the Student Success Committee’s work.
“I hope they have heard that we absolutely have to add money to the system,” he said. “We keep talking about trimming the fat when we are cutting into the bone.”
Quality Education Commission member Maryalice Russell said she has watched biennium after biennium as people say it isn’t the right time for Oregon to increase school funding. She would like to see the governor lead a change.
“I think we’re long past the time,” said Russell, McMinnville School District superintendent. “I think the leadership of the state needs to embrace the fact that our future is dependent upon the education our kids receive.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA