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Increasing student success in Oregon schools

On Tuesday, the Oregon Legislative Student Success Committee convened in the Rogue Valley. They met with education and business leaders, student representatives and community members and toured pockets of excellence in Pre-K-12 education. The goal of the committee is to gather information statewide on strategies to close the achievement gap and improve graduation rates.

There were recurrent themes in the sessions I attended.

Early childhood education came up frequently. Participants advocated for free preschool, parent education and increased funding for early childhood intervention services. Kindergarten readiness data in the Medford School District shows that the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers has already begun before students ever enter school.

Also mentioned consistently was full funding of Measure 98, which provides targeted investments in grades 8-12 for career technical education, drop-out prevention strategies and college and career readiness. Medford School District divides its allotment between each of the three areas, and Superintendent Brian Shumate credited the funding as a “game changer” in his testimony to the committee Tuesday.

The increased need for funding for mental health and behavior supports was also frequently mentioned.

But if we are really concerned about addressing student achievement in Oregon, then we must grapple with the reality that the current funding system provides for a school year among the shortest and class sizes among the highest in the nation. Districts around the state are just now coming out of pre-recession cuts, and these are the basement levels they are restoring services to.

Last January, business and labor leaders came very close to reaching a deal on revenue and expense reform that would enable Oregon to make real investments in closing the gap, such as those described above. The Legislature needs to bring both parties to the table again as soon as possible and before the next session in January.

We need to look at more modest proposals for corporate tax increases, ones that do not tax food or medications and do not add tax upon tax in every stage of the manufacturing and retail process.

The personal “kicker” is looming, with an estimated $500 million to be returned next year. The Legislature, with a two-thirds majority, could vote to divert the kicker in times of emergency. Why not divert it to the unfunded PERS liability, thereby preventing millions in rate hikes to school districts around the state?

Oregon is the only state with property tax limits that has no method for resetting the assessed value of the residence, either upon sale or gradually over time. A reset would generate much needed funding, but also address the inequity of neighbors paying vastly different amounts for the same public services.

On the subject of spiraling costs in school district and state budgets, health care is huge.

Coordinated Care Organizations (CCOs) have done an amazing job controlling medical inflation for the Medicaid program recipients they manage — so much so, that they have amassed $900 million in reserves over the past five years. Those reserves should be held by the Treasury in trust for each community served by each CCO. Doing so will keep those public funds from disappearing in the event of corporate takeovers, such as happened with the purchase of Agate Healthcare in Eugene by Centene.

The state needs to take steps to address this loophole quickly as contracts with CCOs are being renewed now for the next five years.

Opening CCOs up to administer benefits for school district and other public employees would also make sense for controlling spiraling health care costs. Taking down barriers between the major employee benefit plans including OEBB, PEBB and self-insured districts like Medford, so they could bargain with third party administrators or health insurers for the best possible rates would surely result in cost savings as well.

In Medford SD, we will continue to do the best job we can with the revenue we are given. But if the state is serious about closing the achievement gap and graduating all students college- and career-ready, then we must address revenue and expense reform.

Karen Starchvick of Jacksonville is chair of the Medford School Board. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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