Candidates Seek Better Performance, More Accountability
K-12 education commands a large chunk of Oregon’s biennial budget and presents a big chunk of the state’s chronic political issues from class sizes to graduation requirements. Directing public education is one of the biggest jobs for an Oregon governor and consequently a major topic for the three leading gubernatorial candidates in the 2022 election.
Responding to questions posed by Oregonian reporters, Democrat Tina Kotek wants public schools to be accountable for the goals in the Student Success Act that generates an additional $1 billion in annual funding. Republican Christine Drazan wants more parental involvement and transparency in curriculum decisions. Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson wants the Department of Education to move from writing reports to coaching local school officials.
The 2021-2023 biennial budget includes $8.541 billion for K-12 education, a nudge over 29 percent of the $29.3 billion of available state general and lottery funds. Only human services claims a larger share of total state budget resources.
The critical difference among the three candidates centers on their votes and expectations related to the Student Success Act.
Kotek, Drazan and Johnson are campaigning as new findings dramatize public school challenges. The Oregon Department of Education released a report last week indicating class sizes in public schools had shrunk, in part because of chronic student absences. That news followed an earlier report indicating a sharp drop in student master of reading, writing and math following school shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic. Slipping reading, writing and math achievement have been reported across the nation.
There were bright spots in the reports – ninth grade test results rebounded from a low the previous year and there were more counselors, psychologists and teachers. The combination of fewer students and more teachers produced the lowest average class size (22 students) on record in Oregon. Online schools reported larger class sizes, reflecting their popularity.
According to the report, 36 percent of Oregon students missed a tenth of school class days, up from 20 percent before the pandemic. Some schools reported chronic absenteeism exceeding 50 percent. The 193,000 students who missed three or more weeks of school last year are expected to lag in reading skill, a factor with a high correlation of failing to graduate high school. Department of Education officials attributed the absences to waves of Delta and Omicron COVID infections last year.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan issued a report in May flagging gaps in tracking student success. Despite major investment through the 2019 Student Success Act, the report concluded, “Standards for K-12 schools lack clarity and enforceability, allowing low performance to persist.”
Tina Kotek on K-12 Education
Kotek says Fagan’s report offers a roadmap on how to press for better school performance, calling recent K-12 test scores “unacceptable” and pledging a “proactive Department of Education”. As a major legislative force behind passage of the Student Success Act and the corporate activity tax to fund it, Kotek said a top priority for her as governor will be to make good on “a promise to Oregonians that legislation was going to improve outcomes.”
Kotek supported suspending graduation requirements in 2021 because of the effects of the pandemic and favors a fresh look to ensure proficiency standards reflect “what students and employers need.”
She noted the Student Success Act includes a requirement to engage parents and community members in spending decisions. “What I see is parents being very engaged in their kids’ education,” Kotek said. “I’m a product of public education. I believe in public education. What’s most important to me is student success.” She linked student success to good working conditions for educators. Kotek has been endorsed by the Oregon Education Association.
Kotek vowed to protect school superintendents and school boards from politically motivated attacks and “distracting conversations, as well as support teaching of “accurate history”.
Christine Drazan on K-12 Education
Drazan points to “chronic low-performing schools” in Oregon and the need to give parents more choices “to put their student in the best school that meets their needs.” She expressed support for tax credits or deductions to ease the financial burden for families to pay for private schools along with continuing “a constitutional obligation to provide a strong common system of schools”.
Drazan opposed the legislation suspending graduation requirements and favors restoring them now. She faulted current standardized test procedures that are taken in the spring with results released the following fall. Instead, she favors more frequent testing in all schools that enable school officials and parents to monitor performance in real-time and provide statewide comparison. “Given the learning loss that we’ve seen over the Covid period, it’s extremely important that we adopt a regular ongoing approach when it comes to assessing where students are at throughout the school year,” she says.
Drazan has been endorsed by the Oregon Moms Union, a political action committee created in 2021 to support parental involvement in education and oppose COVID mandates. She boasts as being the only candidate who voted against the Student Success Act and favored higher school funding than the Democratically controlled House ultimately approved.
In addition to an emphasis on core subject matter, Drazan says curricula should be age appropriate and not focus on issues such as gender and identity. She opposes allowing transgender girls to compete in women’s sports and supports making it easier for parents to view classroom lesson materials. “The function of schools should be to help students prepare for work, and not to help students process or what their identity is, and how they’re going to approach social justice issues,” according to Drazan.
Betsy Johnson on K-12 Education
Unlike other state agencies, Johnson says she would sit down with Colt Gill, who heads the Department of Education, to identify shortcomings and develop a punch list to overcome them. The Department “needs to help local schools, teachers and parents and not administer a sort of Salem-driven nanny state,” Johnson says. “Reports on problems facing schools and districts should come with concrete action items and follow through with accountable results.”
Johnson calls suspending graduation requirements misguided. “I think kids ought to be able to read, write and do fundamental math before they get a high school diploma. Otherwise, we’ve just turned high school performance into a participation certificate,” she says.
Johnson voted for the Student Success Act but has since called it her biggest legislative regret because the measure lacked accountability for results. She believes school curricula should focus on core competencies as well as accurate history. Johnson opposes forcing female athletes to compete against transgender females, but views that as an issue best left to local school boards. She says, “Communities reflect their standards by voting for certain people to be on the school board. And as communities have gotten much more participatory with their school boards, I think they’re closer. I trust local districts.”