The state is celebrating a big number for education – but other numbers in Oregon warrant attention

A state report shows the state is closing the funding gap for Oregon school needs. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

December 3, 2021 5:45 am

“Ain’t nothing ever enough.”

That observation, delivered by a union negotiating team member years ago, has stayed with me ever since as an ever-ready description for what goes on in both bargaining and budgeting.

The most recent example came in response to a legislative report showing that Oregon has reached a multi-decade high water mark in state funding for K-12.  That news elicited warnings rather than celebrations from school employee unions earlier this week.

Their message: It’s still not enough.

I agree.

The funding envisioned by Oregon’s Quality Education Model (QEM) is not enough. But I have different reasons for saying so: It’s not enough to measure funding levels like water levels. It’s where the funds flow, how they’re used and what they accomplish that matters most.

For decades, though, we’ve been focused on the school funding “number,” rather than what that funding achieves.

In the late 1990s, when Oregon schools were still recovering from local revenue losses due to Measures 5 and 50, all eyes turned to Salem for relief. School budgets became the state’s responsibility. Legislators asked: How much do you need? And a task force answered with an amount that exceeded the state’s funding level by more than a billion dollars.

The basis for this school funding target was the Quality Education Model, which was designed to achieve certain outcomes, most notably a high school graduation rate above 90%. But, as years went by and the state was racked by two recessions in the 2000s, the education model became all about the “number” and our billion-dollar-plus failures to reach that number.

The hoped-for educational results of the model faded into a memory hole.

Fast forward to the release this week of the Legislature’s 2021-23 education model report. By the numbers provided, we’ve not only reached the long-sought Holy Grail of model funding, we’ve exceeded it – thanks to an infusion of $1.2 billion in federal relief money on top of what the state budgeted for direct school support.

Isn’t that something to celebrate?

In part, yes.

Not for the numbers, but for what a steady increase in school funding levels have enabled our schools to accomplish over the past decade. As the state reaped the revenue dividends of a stronger economy and was able to deliver more money to K-12, we’ve seen an increase in Oregon’s high school graduation rate to an all-time high of 83%.

That’s what doing more with more is all about.

I wish we’d heard more from education advocates about these gains, because they make the better case for increased funding. But I also suspect there’s a certain nervousness about declaring victory on achieving an aspirational funding level, because then we’re reminded of what that aspiration was all about. We reach back into the memory hole and pull out that long-ago promise of a 90% graduation rate and wonder: Now that we have the money, can we deliver what we promised?

To their credit, the legislators who drafted the latest Quality Education Model report put that graduation rate target front and center. But I’m not sure that the education model will get us there. I’ve seen more results in recent years from the kind of targeted funding provided by Measure 98 than from the all-purpose state school fund dollars that are harder to track and assess.

Further, there is reason to suspect that we may soon be going backwards on that all-important graduation rate. I’m watching an early indicator that tracks the success of high school freshmen. For the first time ever, that indicator showed a troubling decline in the progress of last year’s 9th Graders, which doesn’t bode well for the class of 2024.

With the good news we received from the legislature this week, I hope we can now move beyond the big debates we have every two years in the state budget process about the one, big K-12 number.

Instead, we should focus on the many numbers that we’ll need to assemble and the programs we’ll need to design to achieve our goals, from the no-strings-attached state school fund to Measure 98’s more accountability-focused prescriptions for high school success.

After decades of obsessing over the big school funding number, I hope we’ve learned that no one number is ever enough. It will take many numbers, smarter programs and better results to complete what we set out to achieve more than two decades ago – improving education for Oregon students.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.