“The undercutting of funding for both K-12 education and OSU was the driving factor in our decision to move, wrenching as it was. We don’t have a control group on this, but it is interesting to think about what might have been had we felt able to stay in the community we loved so much and hated to leave.”
–Jane Acker, resident of Corvallis, 1984-1995
Take a trip in a time machine with me. It’s 1984. Reagan is wrapping up his first term. MTV is three years old (Madonna, Van Halen, Huey Lewis and Billy Joel videos are duking it out at the top of the charts), and Apple’s newest product (launched with the famous Super Bowl ad) was a Macintosh 128K.
My sister-in-law Jane had just moved with her young family to Corvallis, Oregon. Her husband David Acker was pursuing his PhD at OSU, focused on international development and agriculture. With four- and one-year-olds, and a one-quarter-time job between the two, the couple had put a high premium on settling where there were good public schools.
The family was pleased with the good teachers, strings music options and enrichment opportunities provided at Wilson Elementary School. Years went by, a third child came along, David completed his PhD. Jane, with a bachelor’s from Stanford and a master’s in Chinese studies from Yale, was very active in the community, serving on Wilson’s site council and, as president of Friends of the Library, getting a new library built in Corvallis.
Then came Measure 5.
Jane describes the impacts of the law that gutted education funding in Oregon as immediate and debilitating to her kids’ classrooms. “My youngest started as a kindergartner in 1992 at Wilson,” she recalls. “Over the next three years he was never in a class with fewer than 31 kids.” Schools began combining principals. They went to a block schedule. At the high school, students were only being scheduled for three out of four class periods. CIM-CAM, a massive reform program—and unfunded mandate—was being rolled out at the same time. There was insufficient money to train teachers in such proficiency-based education, and high anxiety on the part of parents and students on how out-of-state colleges might perceive “portfolios” rather than traditional measures of performance.
Sound familiar yet?
The same cost-cutting measures are being rolled out throughout Central Oregon schools once again. Also similarly, we are seeing significant flight of families from here as a consequence of declining schools.
Granted, people are leaving in part because the economy here is still in recession. But it’s always been difficult to earn a living in Central Oregon. They don’t call it “poverty with a view” for nothing. Strong educational systems are a powerful anchor, and families will do a lot—one parent commuting to a far-away job during the week for example, a fairly common model here in Sisters—before they will uproot and leave high-quality schools.
The Ackers, back in the early ‘90s, explored every option to stay where they believed they belonged, in a community they loved where they had invested so much. They researched private school options, even though they were costly and would have required a daily commute to Eugene.
David’s work as director of the Office of International Research and Development was grant-dependent and tenuous at best. When a job in international programs at Iowa State University opened up—at a 50% salary increase, with tenure, in a community with excellent public schools—the Ackers couldn’t refuse.
What Might Have Been
Corvallis’ loss was Ames’ windfall. Here’s a short list of what the Ackers have accomplished since relocating 17 years ago.
- David is now Assistant Dean of Academic and Global Programs for ISU’s College of Agriculture, overseeing undergraduate education, student study abroad opportunities and the Center for Sustainable Livelihood in Uganda, among other duties.
- As a Parks & Rec Commissioner, Jane was instrumental in getting a $12 million community aquatic center built. During her time as school board president, she helped secure passage of a multi-million dollar bond for a new middle school and improvements to Ames High School. Her current projects include serving on the public library board of trustees, which is overseeing a $20 million library remodel, and chairing the $1.75 million United Way campaign for Story County.
- The three kids are all successfully employed, with one working at Google, another part-way through his emergency medicine residency, and a third working at a software company.
“We were literally in despair, we so didn’t want to leave Oregon,” says Jane, recalling how reluctant the family was to give up on the state. “We loved our community, our friends. But we were so worried about our kids’ education and the school funding situation. We felt pushed out, not pulled.”
Salem, is anybody home? Do you read the papers, or listen to the news? History is repeating, while yet another generation of Oregon public school students gets cheated of opportunities. And perhaps some of the people who are the state’s best and brightest give up on Oregon.