The latest federal data show what parents who care about education in our state already know: Oregon is underfunding public schools compared to the rest of the nation, by a significant seven percent.
Combine this with a lingering, abysmal economy that is creating desperate circumstances for many, untenable PERS retirement benefits, and falling tax rates—Americans are paying the lowest tax rates since 1950—and here’s what it looks like on the ground in our schools.
Fields of study that provide the skills students need for 21st century jobs are being eliminated, and teachers of that coursework let go, meaning it will take years to restore them, if stable funding is ever restored. Given the last hired, first fired logic of our system, talented young teachers are reading the tea leaves and getting out of the education profession. “Non-essentials”—things we used to take for granted such as school sports, art, music, foreign language, vocational classes—are becoming dependent on private funds or going the way of the dodo.
Source of table at right: USA Today, 5/12/2010
At Summit High School in Bend, a seven-period schedule is being considered, up from a block schedule with four daily periods. Teachers who taught six out of eight periods this past year would now teach six out of seven, reducing their prep time while their work loads increase. Due to layoffs, one high school math teacher will be teaching four separate subjects—calculus, contextual geometry, financial algebra and Math 1—in six classes with roughly 210 students. A science teacher will be loaded up with an electronics section, two biology courses, and three physics sections, including an AP course.
In Sisters, the position of principal at the elementary school was eliminated, so the front office will be staffed with one secretary while oversight duties—teacher observations and reviews, compliance with federal and state mandates, etc.—will be performed by the superintendent or a lead teacher. The superintendent has reduced administrators by 50 percent, leaving one part-time secretary to support both him and the school board.
The middle and high school sports programs are in jeopardy. One superb social studies teacher resigned to accept an offer at a technology company, though he hopes to return to teaching one day, when he can be more certain of earning a living for his young family. The dynamic leader of the ASPIRE program, which organizes volunteers to mentor kids on post-graduation plans, was furloughed, despite her program being recently recognized as one of the most effective in the state.
What to do to change course so that students of the next decade don’t receive even less out of their education than today’s? There must be a shift from overly generous retirement plans to better compensation for the most effective teachers during their work years. [Chalkboard Note: Both the Bend-La Pine and Sisters School Districts have designed and will soon implement new models of teacher evaluation and compensation through their work with the CLASS Project.] Any funding solution will have to include PERS reform, since at present, for every dollar spent on teacher salaries, roughly an additional 25 cents must go to PERS. If not, expect continuing, substantial reductions in the number of teachers, the number of school days and teacher compensation to pay for continually rising PERS costs (see the Portland City Club’s report – PDF download).
The current system has resulted in a bum deal for all teachers, as the newly hired are subject to poor job security and depressed salaries, while even those assured of steady teaching jobs must cope with ever-larger class sizes and paychecks reduced by fewer school days.
There are some bright spots in this gloom. Parents, teachers, school board members and community leaders in Sisters are breaking their backs to keep programs intact, by bringing in volunteer help and private resources. A proposal to save school sports would shift management to the parks and rec department, with new revenue coming through additional sports events and camps such as the successful Sisters Lacrosse Invitational, which brought 57 teams to the town this past April. School administrators are endeavoring to keep the ASPIRE program alive by funding the leader position for one year through grants, and transferring oversight to a private non-profit.
These are stop-gaps, subject to volunteer burnout and uncertainties about long-term private funding. Public school teachers cannot do the stellar work for kids that they want to, and we need them to, in the current school funding system.
What will it take for a Sputnik moment, for America and Oregon to recognize that a sufficiently-funded public education system that rewards excellence is the one investment with the payload to pull our country out of an economic death spiral? That higher spending on students must be part of the equation lest other countries continue to widen their competitive edge in a global economy? That reduced spending on PERS public employee benefits must be part of the solution? That the only path to secure, family-wage employment for our youths is an education that prepares them for 21st century jobs?
It will take a collective and massive shift in the public will for such a course correction. Who’s on board?