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Calls for funding programs dominate Student Success Committee hearings
Legislators heard no shortage of good education ideas Thursday, but underlying them all was a call for more school funding.
The Joint Interim Committee on Student Success held its first road meeting in Lane County, with a student listening session, a schools tour, an education advocate roundtable and a public testimony hearing. The bipartisan committee will be touring the state for the next year, asking how to improve and pay for Oregon’s education system. The effort is an outgrowth of the 2017 legislative session’s grappling with revenue reform and cost containment.
School board members, students, parents, business leaders, community members, school administrators and other education advocates told legislators about successful programs that needed more support and areas where schools must do more.
“You do wrap-around services, you give kids an opportunity to grow, and we’ll get them to graduation,” said Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Rieke-Smith at the afternoon roundtable.
Legislators met with about two dozen regional education leaders. Four school board members joined the discussion: OSBA Board Member Sherry Duerst-Higgins (South Lane and Lane ESD), Dean Livelybrooks (Crow-Applegate-Lorane), Wylda Cafferata (Pleasant Hill) and Rose Wilde (Lane ESD).
The committee also invited the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Education Association, the Oregon School Employees Association, the Parent-Teacher Association, Oregon Business & Industry, the Lane Education Service District and the Lane Early Learning Alliance to send representatives.
Duerst-Higgins said extracurricular activities and sports helped her district keep students engaged to achieve high graduation rates, but it’s hard to pay for those activities while also meeting state-required initiatives.
“You give us a mandate, fund us for it,” Duerst-Higgins told the legislators. “We need funding.”
Wilde also spoke of the need for programs to connect students with school and to support struggling students and those programs’ cost. Cafferata stressed the need for more early learning, especially for students from low-income families.
Livelybrooks raised the need to invest in finding, training and retaining quality administrators. He also pressed for regional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math hubs to help schools that can’t buy all the equipment on their own.
“It saves us money,” he said. “That is a critical thing.”
Funding, career and technical education, and early learning were recurring themes during the two-hour meeting, and participants also raised issues such as community engagement, teacher burnout, school accountability and the challenges facing today’s students.
“We don’t have enough money to create the kind of system everyone around this table wants,” said Tad Shannon, president of the Eugene Education Association.
Earlier in the day, 11 members of the committee and six other interested legislators sat down with students from a dozen schools. The legislators moved among seven tables with two to four students at each.
“They have an imaginary high school in their minds, and we told them how it really is,” said Willamette High School senior Amanda Gómez Zeller. Willamette is in the Bethel School District.
Students raised issues ranging from funding for sports teams to test anxiety and career opportunities.
Gómez Zeller said talking to legislators face to face had more impact than filling out a survey. Committee Co-Chair Sen. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) agreed.
“It was all the kinds of things we really need to hear,” he said.
Committee Co-Chair Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) praised the district for selecting students on a range of education paths, many of whom had struggled.
Maya Treder, an Echo High School student, enlightened Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) about some students’ challenges to staying in school. Legislators met with students Thursday in Eugene as part of the work of the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Maya Treder, who will graduate from Echo High School as a junior, was a 4.0 student who briefly dropped out. She said it was important for legislators to understand that testing is not the only way to measure success.
“I hear many kids in my school say, ‘I’m doing my best just by getting here today,’” she said. For many students in alternative programs, getting back into school is a “triumph,” she said.
After lunch, legislators toured regional schools. Stops included an alternative high school, preschool and STEM programs, and a rural school.
The Preschool Promise classroom at Maple Elementary offers early learning to families who can’t afford preschool. Students in the program last year, its first, are now scoring near the top of their classes on assessment tests, according to the school, including students who didn’t speak English in preschool.
“That’s what this is all about: leveling the playing field,” said Dave Hulbert, who oversees the Springfield School District pre-K programs. An important aspect of the grant-funded program, he said, was it allowed him to buy supplies for the classroom and pay the teacher a living wage. Early childhood programs often offer wages below teacher salaries, making it hard to keep quality instructors.
Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) was among the members of the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success to check out Thursday the work of an early learning program at Springfield School District’s Maple Elementary. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The wages problem was echoed at the tour of career and technical education offerings at Mohawk Middle/High School in Marcola. Professionals can usually earn more in the trades than they can teaching, making it hard to find instructors.
During the roundtable discussion, representatives for teachers and educational assistants spoke of the increased classroom burdens, uncertain employment and flat pay causing burnout.
Business representatives pushed back against some of the talk of costs, pointing out recent increases in education funding. Oregon Business & Industry President Mark Johnson, a Hood River County School Board member and former state representative, suggested some services schools offer might be better placed with other agencies. He also raised the idea of centralizing teacher salary negotiations to help control state spending.
The Student Success Committee is working to create an education package for the 2019 Legislature that will likely include funding reform. Despite the day’s repeated calls for more funding, there were no clear ideas of where that money would come from.
Finding that money will likely be divisive, but the committee’s work has backing from legislative leadership. Megen Ickler, communications director for House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), attended the day’s events.
“The speaker is really looking forward to what this committee brings back,” Ickler said.
During the evening hearing, public testimony reiterated the points the legislators heard all day. About 35 people signed up to speak, with lots of support for career and technical education and calls for more funding and additional programs.
There was also appreciation throughout the day for the legislators taking the time to listen.
“A lot of this is hope,” said Treder, the student. “Being here is a hope for change.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA