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‘Total investment’ in Oregon schools doesn’t tell full story
The Joint Ways and Means Education Subcommittee last week dug into state analysts’ process for determining how much money schools need to keep doing what they are doing.
Toward the end, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, noted that he can’t talk about “current service level” without constituents asking about the fact the State School Fund has shrunk as a share of the state budget. Committee Co-Chair Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said they needed to look at the overall investment being made in schools, not just the State School Fund amount.
But school leaders say the core conversation needs to be around the State School Fund, the foundation of paying for Oregon’s K-12 schools. Roping in other moneys expressly designed to be extra funding runs contrary to their purpose.
“The investments the state has made have been amazing for districts,” said Jackie Olsen, executive director of the Oregon Association of School Business Officials. “But if they don’t fund us at an adequate level, we still have to provide the basics and figure out how to do that.”
Education advocates say schools need at least $10.3 billion for most districts to avoid cuts. Gov. Tina Kotek has proposed a $9.9 billion State School Fund.
At that level, schools would need to cut into programs that are sometimes described as extras but that are meeting the needs of some of Oregon’s most vulnerable students and those who haven’t been adequately served in the past, Olsen said.
Legislative Highlights is offering a weekly look at the State School Fund process, “Funding Oregon’s Future,” so school board members can be informed about how the state considers their districts’ funding needs. Understanding how districts must weave funding to maintain programs is key to the discussion.
For at least a decade before 2019, the State School Fund hovered around 39% of Oregon’s general fund and lottery spending. For 2019-21, it was 36%. The proposed $9.9 billion would be 32%.
Schools have gained some targeted money, though, most significantly the High School Success Fund (known as Measure 98) and the Student Investment Account, which flows from the Student Success Act. Kotek’s budget pegs a fully funded Measure 98 at $330 million and an expected Student Investment Account of $977 million.
Voters passed Ballot Measure 98 in 2016 to give high schools extra money to improve graduation rates. School districts must spend High School Success funds on dropout prevention, career and technical education, and/or college-level education opportunities.
The measure stipulated the money couldn’t be used to replace general fund money already being spent on a program. It had to be used to start something new or expand an existing program, which the money can now be used to continue.
Expanding career and technical education offerings, paying for dual-credit classes and adding graduation coaches and related supports are among districts’ most popular choices.
The Legislature passed the Student Success Act in 2019, creating a corporate activity tax to invest more than $1 billion a year in K-12 education. About half goes directly to districts through grants. The act lays out four categories with a heavy emphasis on equity for using SIA funds: reducing class size, increasing instructional time, improving health and safety, and offering a well-rounded education.
For many districts, when the State School Fund falls short of their basic costs, they look to dip into these other funds intended for improving schools.
Olsen offered an example of the trade-offs made. If a district doesn’t have enough general fund money, it might have to cut teachers, which would raise class sizes. But the Student Investment Account allows districts to spend money on lowering class sizes, so a district could use that money to keep the teachers because otherwise class sizes would go up. But the end result is class sizes stay the same, and the district has to pull SIA money from another program that the community asked for during the SIA application process.
Olsen said that tells the community: “We heard you, but we’re not listening.”
Legislators intended the Student Investment Account to be additional spending to raise the quality of Oregon schools, according to Arnie Roblan, a former Democratic senator.
“It’s not just extra,” said Roblan, a Coos Bay School Board member, “it was noting that we had fallen way behind in the total amount we were spending on schools.”
Roblan was one of the chief architects of the Student Success Act. Before the bill passed, legislators traveled the state asking what communities wanted from their schools. He said parents asked for things such as increased mental health resources that “always take second fiddle” to the budget items schools must have.
“We wanted to make sure that the Ways and Means process didn’t think of that as just extra money for the State School Fund,” Roblan said. “We put parameters and expectations about the money so that people recognize it was over and above the State School Fund.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Previous Funding Oregon's Future stories:
Feb. 6: $9.9 billion State School Fund is better but students deserve more
Jan. 30: Bill aims for true accounting of school funding needs
Jan. 23: State School Fund is education policy made real