Oregon’s High School Graduation Rates Are Worse than Justin Beiber. Here are 4 ways to help lessen that bummer.

[full]Did you know the rate of graduation for Oregon’s high school students is among the lowest of low in the nation? We’re talking the bottom 2-3% in the country for several years.

And although it’s getting a little better, real change isn’t going to happen until more of us get involved. In light of this I’ve compiled a how-to guide on how to help Oregon continue to improve. It will definitely take a bit of work, which can be a drag- but! Fortunately for you, esteemed N&C reader, I did the dirty work for both of us. In search of further insight I sat down with Ramin Farahmandpur, professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at Portland State University, to figure out how to most effectively work toward eradicating this problem.

Here’s all the info on Oregon’s public education shortcoming with hopefully minimal confusion, plus an optimistic take on what has the potential to turn around significantly in the coming years.[/full]


[full]  #1:  First  we  have  to  understand  the  problem…  Surprise![/full]

[one-third]It’s mostly about money, funding allocation, and the disappearance of the middle class.

Truly wrapping the mind around the cause of our state’s problem is tricky, because it’s a multidimensional issue. Historically it’s largely had to do with Oregon’s Poverty Level (it’s pretty high), and more recently criticism has been aimed at some new state-developed systems for determining distribution of public funds.

The poverty issue:

Although the cost of living continues to rise along the I-5 corridor– especially in Portland– it still somehow feels easy to live here. Our unemployment rate has teetered on abysmal since the beginning of the recession in 2008, but Oregon has also long housed considerable industry as the place of origin for companies like Nike, Adidas, as well as supporting an increasing number of tech startups.

Our state’s minimum wage at $9.25 an hour is two dollars higher than the federal minimum, and our community’s food and drink affinity makes service jobs plentiful (unlike many other states Oregon doesn’t cut wages for tipped workers, generally yielding more statewide revenue flow).[/one-third][one-third]We also have relatively well funded and accessible social welfare programs like the Oregon Health Plan and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which makes it all the more confusing that our public education doesn’t even come close to our state’s seemingly satisfying standard of living.

So what’s the deal?

Most funding for our state-provided education comes from taxation of wages, and there really is prevalent poverty in Oregon in both urban and rural areas alike. According to 2014 Census data, Oregon has experienced one of the most extreme increases of poverty seen nationwide since the beginning of the recession in the year 2008.

We simply don’t have as much statewide revenue to draw from. This article by Ramin Farahmandpur breaks it down clearly and succinctly.

The other big point of contention I mentioned is the way Oregon decides to divvy up its money, which I’ll cover in this next section.[/one-third][one-third]4558969612_7c80efe150_o[/one-third]


[half]#2: Next we have to keep paying attention

Things are changing quickly and all the time. And while a lot of it is promising, it becomes even more so with citizen support.

The typical funding issues that you might imagine impede students’ success are no different in Oregon: large classroom sizes, inefficient funding allocation, continued cuts in arts and enrichment programs, and failure to equally engage a diversity of students – are all recurring problems.

In a 2011 attempt to improve the way our public funds were used in our education system, former Governor John Kitzhaber created the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB). Members of the board range from current educators to Corporate figureheads.

The board was created in unison with Kitzhaber’s 40-40-20 plan, stating that by the year 2025 Oregon would not only enjoy a 100% rate of graduation for high school students, but that all graduates would also continue on with success in the next phase of their advancement.

The plan specifies that out of the (questionably ambitious?) 100% of students, 40% will obtain a 2-year degree, another 40% will obtain a 4-year degree, and the remaining 20% will complete some kind of career training.[/half][half]So… wait. To recap, our current graduation rates hover around 68%, and this initiative talks about achieving actual perfection. It’s certainly an impressive goal, and while I’m clearly doubtful we’ll achieve the projected levels of success, it follows that the high ambitions could at least lead us toward improvement.

And this is where we really need to pay attention: The OEIB is responsible for how public funds are distributed among Oregon’s education endeavors, and so far their record of decision making hasn’t elicited any increase in funding methods. There has always been plenty of reassessment on WHAT to do with our revenue, but the board continues to stave off resorting to more funding in general (like through increased corporate taxation, for example.)

Since its inception several years ago the board has focused on redefining achievement goals, standards in testing, and teaching quality. These are sensible elements of attaining higher success rates, but without increased funding it’s difficult to imagine how much improvement these measures will truly yield. More revenue means reform through the means of reduced classroom sizes and preserving the “extra” curriculum like music and art, and those things are what have typically served student retention. (The board does hold public meetings where citizens can contribute to the process, but public attendance has been consistently minimal.)[/half]



[half]#3: Then we need to speak up about it

Because we live in a democracy and we have to advocate for ourselves and each other.

In recent years citizens brought to the Supreme Court an initiative called the Quality of Education Model (QEM). The 63-page document shared with me by Ramin envelopes an extensive list of educational elements proven necessary to ensure students’ graduation. The intention of the initiative is to explicitly show how much funding is needed for each student’s success, and then compare that with how much funding is currently available, ultimately resulting in evoking a change in how much revenue we allocate to public education.

The gist of the calculation is this: we currently have a deficit of roughly 2.38 million dollars in the annual education budget. To put this in perspective a bit, the deficit has thankfully become smaller over the past few years, but any significant further closing in on that gap isn’t projected by our legal system.

Possibly the most incredulous part of the whole thing is that upon review of the initiative, the Supreme Court agreed with all points but said it would be impossible to regulate. Citizens then pushed back accusing the Court of constitutional breach, and currently it sits in limbo awaiting the next round of reviews.[/half][half]In an except from an article written by Portland State Associate Professor Patrick Burk, both the ethical and political tug-of-war is outlined poignantly:

It (the QEM) then asks a very simple question: What would it cost to provide a full service school to every Oregon student based upon that current expenditure? Aspirational? Yes. But labeling it “fantasy” and “daydreaming” is no answer for the children and families who have something much less than full service in their schools. They may more likely refer to Oregon spending as “unfair,” “discriminatory” and “inadequate” for Oregon’s economic future. Is it fantasy that every child should have a reasonable class size, access to support and special services, a librarian, a music teacher, physical education?  How are we to decide who receives these services and who does not?

The QEM puts a stake in the ground for planning that, at least, helps us understand the fiscal difference between full service schools and what we currently have. It is up to us, citizens and legislators, to decide what we want for our children. Ritual self-flagellation?  No.  For over two decades we have watched in frustration as schools have been stripped of the very services needed for student success. The report demonstrates that we can, with targeted investments, make progress in reducing the funding gap.[/half]


[full]#4: And finally, we have to vote and stuff

Research and vote. Every time. Because seriously we do live in a democracy, and even if it feels daunting we have to be proactive.

The symptoms Oregon has experienced over the years is part of a larger systemic problem that needs to be critically examined and constantly improved upon.

Who else is going to act in our interest? Corporate lobbyists? The media?

Maybe eventually. But that sort of widespread conscientiousness will only follow our own.

Written by Danielle Purkey
Photos courtesy of Grant Walter, Derrick Bostrom, and OPB
Under Flickr Creative Commons