What’s ailing Oregon education?

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Our state government’s spending addiction and our failing public school system are Oregon’s two most serious and pervasive problems.

According to the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, this is the number one tax-and-spend state in the West. In fact, we spend more taxpayer dollars per capita than all but ten other states.

About half of our discretionary revenue is spent on pre-k-16 public education. But despite the immense cost, our K-12 system has one of the worst performance records in the nation. By any measure, homeschoolers, private schools, and even most charter schools, are performing much better. They outperform our public schools, even though they receive significantly less, or often no, outside funding.

Without a doubt, the breakdown of family and personal values contributes to the failure of our public schools. Many Oregon public educators are quick to blame the public school system’s failures on this very real and insidious malady. However, the abdication of parent responsibility is neither restricted to Oregon, nor to certain communities.

So why are Oregon public schools doing so much worse than schools in other states?

First and foremost, our public schools are government-sanctioned monopolies that are operated by public employee unions primarily for the benefit of their members. Oregon has taken this reality to a new art form. Public school performance won’t improve until union control is addressed.

In my opinion, a three-pronged effort is needed to begin to address the scope of the problem.

First, we need to amend our Constitution to establish Oregon as a right-to-work state. The amendment must originate by initiative petition and be enacted by the people. Under its current leadership, I believe our Legislative Assembly will never change the current law because it is dependent upon, and beholden to, public employee union money.

Next, we must break the government-sanctioned monopoly by introducing competition in how education services are delivered to the public. Competition can best be created by channeling education funding to follow the individual student, rather than flowing directly to the school district. Several methods are available, including creating education vouchers, education tax credits and education savings accounts. All of these methods have proven successful in other states such as Florida, where public school performance also improved measurably with competitive pressure.

Finally, we must provide school districts with teams of professional labor negotiators. Public school labor contracts are too often negotiated between professional union negotiating teams and school board members who have little or no labor negotiation experience.

The outcome is consistent and predictable. To no one’s surprise, the union negotiators prevail virtually every time.

We must level that playing field by providing school districts with equally trained professional labor negotiators to offset the experience and expertise of these union labor teams.

Another question that begs answering is, “Do Oregon public schools need more money, or do they need more accountability and better management?”

In my opinion, school management is the most important influence in how well students perform. I represent Senate District 28, which encompasses about 20 percent of Oregon’s total landmass and has more than a dozen school districts. Some of those districts excel while others are not performing well.

The state school funding formula equalizes the amount of money each school district receives, plus or minus about $20 per student. High school graduation rates range between the mid-90s and the low-70s among the districts, even though they all receive about the same funding per student.

Good superintendents and principals require significantly different skills than good teachers. Yet the preponderance of school executives have been promoted from the ranks of Oregon teachers. Some, simply, are not adequately trained to do the job.

Both superintendents and principals must know state and federal laws and administrative rules, as they apply to education. But they must also understand financial management, academic curricula, labor negotiations, staff supervision, student and staff discipline, student transportation and the operation and maintenance of physical plants.

Oregon should focus on developing better trained school administrators to run our schools. The total administrative costs may actually be reduced, because good managers routinely need fewer subordinate managers to get the job done.

By any measure, our state school funding formula is flawed. It is based upon Average Daily Weighted Membership, wherein the formula sends a lot more money to the districts for certain kids, such as those living in poverty, English Language Learners and special needs students.

The funding formula functionally creates more than 120,000 phantom students. The amount of money provided to the districts is not based on the actual number of students attending school. Instead, it is calculated off this grossly inflated number of formula students.

Nearly 25 percent of the formula students only exist in Department of Education paperwork. The amount of money the districts receive for each student is inflated by about the same percentage.

Districts and schools are shamelessly gaming the funding formula. They all do it, because they get paid for skirting the rules.

Under state law, the formula caps the percentage of students that can be categorized as special education at 11 percent, with certain waiver exceptions. Whenever the district classifies a kid as special education it get paid twice as much.

The result is predictable. It is my understanding that virtually every school district in Oregon has at least the allowed percentage of special education students. This is not serendipity. Sadly, it’s often much easier, and more lucrative, to have a child diagnosed with a learning disorder than it is to enforce discipline.

The number of kids in poverty is even easier for the districts to inflate. It is largely calculated off of the number of kids receiving free lunches. Not surprisingly, many schools encourage all of their students to eat a free lunch.

No requirement exists for the districts to improve English Language Learner performance. In fact, there is no requirement that the districts even spend the money allocated for English Language Learners for that purpose. The longer it takes for a kid to learn English, the longer the schools receive the extra money. Schools are essentially getting paid to not improve their students’ language skills.

I believe the state school funding formula is so dysfunctional that it should be abolished. In the alternative, we must change the formula to require schools to actually spend the extra money they receive on the students who the formula targets. Additionally, schools must be required to meet some performance standard in order to continue collecting increased formula funding.

Currently, there are few such requirements. There is little accountability for how the extra money is spent. Districts and schools can, and do, spend the money pretty much any way they please.

We know that student school absenteeism is directly related to our abysmal graduation rates. Yet our public school system has no monetary incentive to improve attendance. The school funding formula pays school districts for the number of students that are enrolled. Whether students actually attend classes is pretty much irrelevant to how much the districts are paid.

We must change the state school funding formula from average daily membership, where the school gets paid for how many kids are enrolled, to average daily attendance, where the school gets paid for how many students are actually attending class. The new system would only pay each school for each day a student is in the classroom.

This single change was enormously effective for the Texas public school system. Within three years, that state’s high school graduation rate improved by nearly 20 percent. The number of students who subsequently enrolled in community colleges improved nearly as much. One of the school district that achieved the most improvement is located 12 miles from the Mexican border and has 32,000 students. Forty two percent of those students are English Language Learners and 70 percent are living in poverty.

One reason our education system has been failing is because we are perpetuating institutional absenteeism. Oregon students have experienced among the shortest school years in the nation as measured by minimum instructional time required per school year. Professional development, inclement weather, and even the supervision of breakfast and afternoon snacks, were often defined as instructional time.

Recently enacted laws and administrative rules were aimed at improving the minimum allowable school year. The percentage of students required to receive the minimum instruction time is being incrementally improved and some of the more egregious definitions of instructional time are being removed. Unfortunately, union labor negotiators continue bargaining “student contact time” by the minute.

School employees such as custodial workers and secretaries, who have been on the job longer, are often earning more than entry level teachers. Many entry level employees, as well as school bus drivers, are compensated nearly as much in benefits as they earn in wages. Unions have even been lobbying the Legislative Assembly in recent years to enact a law allowing school employees to receive unemployment insurance compensation during the summer months.

Both district and school administrations are often bloated with redundant staff. Too often, each task or specialty is delegated to yet another administrator. Virtually all administrators earn more than even experienced teachers.

Rather than addressing the cause of these runway costs, many school districts routinely react by shortening the school year. The start date is delayed, the school year is ended earlier and more days off are added to holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, as well as to Spring break. Institutional absenteeism is perpetuated.

To help resolve these issues, local school boards must have more help in negotiating their labor contracts. The current negotiations between professional union teams and elected school board members are heavily skewed in favor of the unions. The outcomes predictably favor the adults and hurt our kids.

Class attendance, by teachers, may be even more important than student attendance.

I do not mean to malign substitute teachers, but few substitutes are capable of maintaining the discipline, rhythm, daily lessons and substance of a teachers’ classroom plan. Too often, when the teacher misses a day in class, all of their students miss a day of instruction.

The current system of paid sick leave actually may incentivize teachers not to attend their classes. Because they are usually not required to substantiate an illness, they can use paid sick leave much like paid vacation. Moreover, under most contracts, teachers can only accumulate a certain amount of paid sick leave, so they must either use it or lose it.

School labor contracts regarding paid leave must be restructured to incentivize teachers to attend their classes. Each missed day of instruction costs about twice as much, because both the absent teacher and a substitute teacher are getting paid. More important, a class of students too often functionally misses another day of instruction.

Oregon public school teachers are generally paid by seniority, rather than by classroom performance. There are many very good experienced teachers who are worth every dollar they are paid. The trouble is that performance is irrelevant for tenured teachers. Some with the same amount of experience, who may not be effective, get paid the same amount. Worse, because of contractual seniority benefits, active young teachers are the first to be laid off, regardless of how well they perform in the classroom.

The union stranglehold must be broken by paying teachers commensurate with both their experience and classroom performance. I believe the best way to achieve this outcome is to test each class of students at both the beginning, and the end, of each school year. Teacher performance would be measured by how much student performance improves, in their class, during the school year. The system would be self-governing, because each new teacher will be checking the accuracy and honesty of the student evaluation by the last teacher. Their pay level would depend upon it.

Schools that maintain robust vocational student programs have significantly higher graduation rates. Many students, undeniably, learn better and more efficiently with hands-on experience. Yet Oregon schools are systematically eliminating vocational teaching. If we are serious about improving our public education outcomes, we must reestablish and prioritize our vocational teaching curricula.

The Teachers Standards and Practices Commission’s (TSPC) “mission” is to “establish, uphold and enforce professional standards of excellence and communicate those standards to the public and educators for the benefit of Oregon students.” Sounds great, right?

In my opinion, this is Oregon’s must counterproductive state agency. TSPC does very little to benefit students because virtually every one of its licensing and regulatory functions is structured to protect its union members’ jobs. Its longstanding backlog for addressing complaints and discipline should be an embarrassment for all legislators. I believe TSPC should have been abolished years ago, and have voted against its budget for the past ten years.

Finally, the out-of-control cost of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is eating school district budgets alive. PERS contribution rates for school districts are expected to increase by an average of 4.5 percent of payroll in 2017. The additional cost to Oregon public schools will be around $335 million. To put that huge amount of money into perspective, it is the equivalent of more than 2,000 fewer teachers, absent new funding.

The PERS actuaries are forecasting future additional increases that will be at least that big in both 2019 and 2021. Over the next six years, those cumulative increases will total more than $2 billion for Oregon school districts. All that spending will not hire a single teacher or counselor.

A number of corrective actions are available that our Legislative Counsel believes will withstand court challenges. My office recently produced a newsletter spelling out PERS problems and potential solutions that have been proposed by the Senate Republican Office.

Currently, Senators Tim Knopp (R-Bend) and Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) have independently formed a bipartisan work group to explore these, and other, remedies.

“The first job” of Oregon government should be to take action to fix our broken public education system. Unfortunately, the current political leaders appear to have no solution other than to throw more money at the problem.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls