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Editorial: The governor’s math doesn’t add up

It must be nice to be the governor of Oregon.

The job seems to exempt the holder from certain rules that apply in the real world — rules like “you’re supposed to pay people for the professional services they provide.”

Why pay people for something you have the authority to order them to do for free?

Education reform is a worthy goal, but somebody needs to tell Governor John Kitzhaber that piling on the unfunded mandates as school districts cut more teachers and more days every year will eventually do more harm than good.

The hours spent gathering, tracking, analyzing and reporting large amounts of data for the state’s achievement compacts are taking time and resources away from direct services to students. Other reforms (like kindergarten readiness testing, teacher evaluations, extra diploma requirements and the adoption of the Common Core curriculum) also eat up valuable time and energy from a staff already spread too thin.

The state won’t pay for new sports uniforms, signs and the development of a new mascot for districts whose Native American mascots have been banned. It also expects districts that can’t afford to fix leaking roofs to pay for the teachers and classroom space needed to implement full-day kindergarten by 2015.

And then there is early childhood education, where the governor had gotten rid of Commissions on Children and Families and has started to implement regional “hubs.” The hubs are looking increasingly familiar to those who know how the commission system worked — the major difference being the hints that local organizations will be expected to donate bookkeeping, data collection, reporting, office space, information technology and other administrative services.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could tell your mechanic or plumber they need to learn to “do more with less” and therefore you will only be paying them for the parts and not labor?

Money isn’t the solution to all of Oregon’s education woes, but it is the cause of many of its current problems. It makes sense that Oregon’s abysmal graduation rate might be connected to the fact that it has the shortest school year and third worst student-to-teacher ratio in the country.

Some of the governor’s ideas for reform are good, but they won’t turn Oregon’s outcomes around unless paired with measures to stop districts from hemorrhaging money. Otherwise it’s a bit like flossing your teeth instead of trying to stop the bleeding on a gaping wound.

The most obvious and pressing thing that needs to be done is to reform the Public Employee Retirement System. In the eighties and nineties the PERS board made overly generous promises that have since become unsustainable and are forcing districts around the state to cut more teachers every year as their required contribution goes up.

Legislators need to be fair to retirees but also realize that, as a Portland State University study recently concluded, Oregon’s public employees contribute far less to the pension system than employees in neighboring states and yet reap much more generous benefits.

Developments like skyrocketing PERS costs, sequester cuts and unfunded mandates mean today’s children are getting less individual attention, fewer course choices to keep them interested in school, fewer programs and fewer school days.

As the Oregon Blue Book states: “In most other states — and countries — the younger generation of adults is more educated than their elders. In Oregon, adults aged 25–34 are less educated than their parents’ generation, with fewer earning certificates or degrees beyond high school.

Almost a third of Oregon students are failing to graduate with a regular diploma after four or even five years in high school.”

That’s not a problem we can go back and fix once the economy is better. By then it will be too late for several more years’ worth of graduates. Those students — and society — will suffer from the consequences for decades to come.

Lawmakers’ intent to give schools extra money in the next biennium to help offset some of the PERS increases is a start, but if they really do care about education they need to get serious about putting their money where their mouth is.

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