Oregonians have struggled with the issue of school funding for generations. From the beginning, decisions have been based on a combination of high ideals, politicking and guesswork. Now, for the first time in the state’s history, parents, teachers, school board members and legislators have the tools they need to make informed, fact-based choices.
One of the most powerful of these tools is the Quality Education Model (QEM). Developed in the late 1990s and recently updated and refined, the QEM provides a detailed framework for understanding what it takes -- and how much it costs -- to provide students with a quality education.
Oregon’s Educational Act for the 21st Century sets statewide standards for student performance and establishes high levels of accountability for schools and districts. The Oregon Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate enough money to make sure the state’s school system meets these goals. And the QEM provides the “road map” for getting there.
How does it work?
The Quality Education Commission was formed in 1997 to answer three questions:
- What is quality education?
- How much does it cost?
- What results can we expect if we spend the money?
To find answers, the Commission looked at educational research, classroom practice, public values and professional opinion. Using this data, a model was developed that sets a cost per student at a prototype elementary, middle and high school, then multiplies that cost by the number of students at each level across the state.
Each prototype provides a vision of a high-performing school with goals for class size, number of teachers and specialists, help for students having trouble, materials and supplies, technology and more. By factoring in different elements such as reducing class size or adding more computers for students, school officials can weigh the impact and calculate the cost of each funding decision.
“In the past, we weren’t able to look at school funding line by line,” says Commission Chair Ken Thrasher. “The QEM gives us a way to do that and shows which cuts will have the least impact on students.”
The prototypes are not richly staffed, but they are designed to provide the instruction, tools and support that will enable all Oregon students to meet the educational goals set by law.
“We don’t expect every school in Oregon to look exactly like one of our prototypes,” says Charles W. Bugge, commission administrator. “Instead, we are hoping school officials will compare our proposals to what they are currently doing and see what fits best in their districts.”
Closing the gap
The gap between current school funding and the QEM prototypes is substantial. Full funding would allow 90 percent of students to meet reading and math standards by 2007-08, according to Thrasher.
“The QEM uses research-based evidence to show what students need to meet standards,” he says. “It can be used to help the Legislature, Governor, Department of Education, and other groups decide where to allocate dollars.”
Given the state’s current economic downturn, it is unlikely the money for full implementation will be available soon. But interim steps can and should be taken now to ensure that Oregon’s students don’t fall behind.
As an alternative to full implementation, the Quality Education Commission recommends:
- A continued focus on reading in the early grades. The 2001-03 biennium budget included $220 million to support this effort, but funds were cut in the second year because of the revenue shortfall.
- Staff professional development. Ongoing training for teachers and principals supports schools in meeting academic goals and helps to attract and retain qualified staff.
- High school restructuring. High school programs need to be restructured to be consistent with new requirements and to equip students for life after graduation.
“If we do not begin the process now, if we wait until there are adequate funds to take the first step, we will not achieve the goals that have been set for Oregon’s educational system,” Bugge says.
There are two sides to the accountability equation. On one hand, schools are expected to deliver on the promise of a quality education for every Oregon student. On the other hand, the Legislature is accountable for providing schools with the resources they need to do the job. The QEM provides detailed, reliable standards for measuring the success of both local and state decision-makers.
“The model is an available, recognized tool that we can use to evaluate the performance of elected officials and state agencies,” says Chris Dudley, OSBA executive director. “It clearly outlines what must be done to meet Oregon’s goals for education.”
Success for every student
Oregon is known for its leading-edge approach to learning. Oregonians value education and believe it should be a top public priority. But we can no longer rely on property taxes or a booming economy to pay the bills. The time has come to decide whether we are going to fulfill the promise of a quality education for all Oregon students.
Fortunately, we have the tools we need to make an informed decision. The QEM provides detailed information about the meaning and cost of quality. It also paints a picture of exactly what’s at stake in the struggle to provide long-term, stable and adequate funding for schools. Now the question is, will we use it?
“It isn’t just about adding more money,” Thrasher says. “We need to resolve issues such as the cost of health coverage, energy and insurance to get more dollars into the classroom. The Legislature needs to look at our state’s changing demographics, at how we manage the system, at transportation, capital spending, class size and length of school year. All these things impact student outcomes.”