Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Oregonian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
Despite last week’s drama in which Senate Republicans refused to show up at the Capitol, there’s little doubt that a $2 billion tax package for education investments will soon pass. While some legislators have their beefs with House Bill 3427, few question the need for more money to support Oregon’s students, from pre-kindergarten through high school. Senate Republicans need to end the drama, return to the Capitol and vote this bill in.
The real mystery that remains however, is how officials can ensure this huge infusion of cash is spent smartly, effectively and accountably. With local school officials controlling most district decisions and a state education department with a spotty track record of holding them accountable, that’s not a given.
Fortunately, the bill, which dedicates much of a new business tax to grants for K-12 districts, recognizes that business as usual is a recipe for failure. The legislation, which reflects the extensive work done by a bipartisan legislative committee, attempts to set up a more accountable structure for issuing money to districts. Districts would submit plans detailing how they will spend funds — such as adding mental health services, increasing the school year, or offering new classes — to improve graduation rates, decrease chronic absenteeism and improve the educational outcomes for historically underserved students. The bill also significantly increases resources for the education department to vet plans, check progress and provide assistance to districts to help them meet their goals. And it requires annual audits from districts and reporting by state education officials.
The bill provides an excellent start. But as numerous examples throughout state government show — from failures to report deaths of children in state custody to allowing companies to pollute on expired permits — written requirements alone aren’t enough. Ensuring accountability relies not just on policies but on people with the commitment and support to ask questions, verify claims, follow up and demand improvements, if needed.
Provided the bill becomes law as expected, here are a few ideas that administrators, legislators, school board members, superintendents and community members should consider for ensuring this massive investment of public dollars is spent for students’ needs.
Plan now. The Student Success Act money isn’t expected to be available for school districts until the 2020-2021 school year. That gives districts time to thoughtfully plan — with the community’s input — how to best use those dollars in true, evidence-based ways to help students. While reducing class size is always a popular idea, districts and communities must honestly weigh if a one- or two-student reduction in class size will be as meaningful as hiring reading specialists in the early years, funding science and technology classes for middle schoolers or increasing counselors for ninth-graders.
Include local oversight in the accountability matrix. The bill already requires districts to include the public in assessing its greatest needs. School boards should go one step farther and create a community oversight panel for their district, composed of residents with expertise in financial, educational and equity strategies. While a school board should ideally provide such oversight, a committee created solely to bird-dog the district’s implementation of its plan and share that information with the public would allow for closer scrutiny and transparency than a school board might provide.
Similarly, rely on regional networks of employees or contractors to help keep districts accountable. The Department of Education will add a new team for administering and managing districts’ grants and ensuring they are meeting their agreements. Rather than park them all in Salem, the agency should look to selectively hire or contract with people in other parts of the state who can regularly check in with far-flung districts — helping create a culture where accountability and follow-ups are considered routine.
Continue with initiatives to improve districts’ operational sophistication. The state is already working with districts on providing fiscal management training for administrators, strengthening district business practices, and emphasizing transparency, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board. Improving the professionalism and transparency of the state’s 197 K-12 school districts helps them not only deliver on any Student Success Act plans, but on serving students in general.
Look into expanding the state board of education to include publicly elected members. Currently, all voting members are appointees of the governor. Including members who owe their seats to the public can help ensure that the board is keeping the needs of students first — something it failed to do when it allowed school districts to abandon minimum requirements of classtime for high school students.
And of course, enact pension reforms. It’s clear that legislators and the governor are finally recognizing the crisis of the pension system’s unfunded liability. Without changes — including requiring public employees to share some of the burden of funding their own pensions — schools will be devoting more and more of these new dollars to pension debt. The expected passage of this bill can be transformative for an educational system currently known for its second-to-worst graduation rate. Failing to reform the pension system would be an unforgivable betrayal of students who need leaders to show the political courage to put them first.