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Capital Chatter: The impacts of 'whipsawing' education

When will Oregon recognize that every grade and all types of learning are important?

A new audit report from Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and the state Audits Division states the obvious: "The Oregon Department of Education should take further steps to help districts and high schools increase Oregon's graduation rate."

Not stated in the audit report is what also should be obvious: Oregon governors and the Legislature keeps whipsawing schools and state education leaders as to what is most important. This audit report stresses middle schools as part of the answer. Gov. John Kitzhaber emphasized early-childhood education. Others focused on high school, especially career-technical education.

When will Oregon recognize that every grade and all types of learning are important, instead of treating any one approach as the panacea?

The audit report, and one released the next day about alternative education, seem to have good ideas but rely on a shallow examination of what individual schools and districts are doing.

Here's a contrary idea: Maybe the Oregon Department of Education collects too much data from schools; instead of, as the audit reports imply, not enough.

State Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, made that point in a July speech on the Oregon Senate floor. He said ODE requires 170 data points from school districts. "What they are doing is compiling reports that end up on a shelf," he said.

(This was before Kruse became persona non grata in the Legislature.)

• What happens now on education: The audit report on graduation rates includes 13 recommendations, including ones that sound rational, logical and doable. Colt Gill, the state's acting deputy superintendent for public instruction, agreed with 13 recommendations and submitted a timeline for achieving them.

State Rep. Knute Buehler, the leading Republican candidate for governor, responded to the audit by vowing: "I will not sign any new spending bills until I have a PERS reform bill on my desk. And I will replace the 197 different teacher contracts across the state with a single statewide teacher contract which forms the basis for local control, negotiation and, if necessary, binding arbitration. These two steps, along with some much-needed innovation, will return millions of dollars to classrooms, improve quality, and bring back accountability."

Buehler deserves credit for being more specific this time than in previous campaign promises.

Democrat Kitzhaber also advocated a statewide salary scale for educators. However, Washington state's experience in that regard has been problematic.

The Oregon Education Association's president, C. John Larson, is an English teacher from Hermiston High School, responded to the audit by again saying the problem is lack of money and a wrong-headed emphasis on standardized testing.

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown did not press releases responding to either audit -- although she did film a video and issue a press release saying she was appalled at Congress for passing the Republican tax reforms. However, her staff said Friday that the following statement was made available to media who asked for a comment:

"Oregon's high school graduation rate is absolutely unacceptable. That's why we are focused on improving outcomes by making sure every student graduates with a plan. That means: identifying students that are struggling using data and getting them back on track; making sure students are attending school; and increasing hands-on learning opportunities to get students engaged. The audit's findings confirm the needs and opportunities that Acting Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill and his team are pushing forward through their strategic plan. We know that schools and districts cannot do this alone, which is why the Oregon Department of Education is partnering with them and providing guidance that enables students to thrive instead of just survive."

• How one high school jumped its graduation rate: high school in a neighboring state boosted its four-year graduation rate from 77 percent in 2013 to more than 90 percent this year. The improvements coincide with the hiring of a new principal and three new counselors — and a renewed emphasis on tenaciously tracking each student's progress and achieving alternatives to dropping out.

Having the right people in the right places makes all the difference.

• It starts with teachers: As the Chalkboard Project has shown in Oregon, the most-important school factor is having an excellent, committed teacher in every classroom. Next is having a highly skilled, effective administrator to guide the school's academic success.

I would add highly effective, dedicated counselors as well. And a range of support programs, from after-school, online and alternative classes to mental health care.

In fact, I would argue that public schools should include substance-abuse treatment programs, given the high number of kids hooked on alcohol and other drugs.

• Health-tax referendum in trouble? A 400-respondent poll by the Lindholm Co. indicates that 52 percent of likely Oregon voters would support the health- are taxes on the Jan. 23 statewide ballot.

Historically, support for tax proposals declines as the election gets closer. That suggests Measure 101 is in trouble. So does the 28 percent of respondents who did not know how they would vote. Twenty percent were opposed.

Measure 101 is a referendum placed on the ballot through a signature campaign by Republican legislators who oppose $320 million in health care taxes passed by the 2017 Legislature. Those taxes were to help fund the Oregon Health Plan and stabilize health-insurance premiums.

On the day after Christmas, county elections officials will start mailing ballots to Oregon voters who are out of state. Ballots for overseas and military voters went out earlier this month. The Military/Overseas Voters' Guide includes more than 50 arguments supporting Measure 101 and about 30 in opposition.

Voters' pamphlets for the rest of us will be mailed next week, and ballots will go out Jan. 3-9. Expect a pro and con advertising campaigns at the same time to sway the undecided voters. With a special election, the outcome will turn on which side — "health care" vs. "no taxes" — is more effective at turning out its voters.

Meanwhile, the Yes for Healthcare campaign announced that 162 organizations have endorsed Measure 101.

• Courtney now a budget nerd: Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has appointed himself as the Senate's co-chair of the Legislature's budget-writing committee. He replaces longtime Ways & Means co-chair Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin. Devlin and former Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day are giving up their legislative seats to join the Northwest Power & Conservation Council.

Courtney likes to say he's not a budget guy — someone who can quote numbers off the top of his head, as Devlin could. But insiders say Courtney knows more about the state budget than he lets on.

In fact, this is the second time Courtney has chosen himself as Ways & Means co-chair. He filled that role for 16 months during 2009-10 after Portland Sen. Margaret Carter resigned. That eventually led to Devlin becoming Ways & Means co-chair, having found mixed success as the Senate majority leader.

The fate of Measure 101 will determine whether Medicaid funding — the Oregon Health Plan — will be the major budget issue in the 2018 Legislature. Oregon also should see much higher state income tax receipts due to Congress' changes in the federal income tax laws.

Courtney said that appointing himself as co-chair "creates the fewest disruptions in the committee structure and keeps the [Ways & Means] subcommittee co-chairs in place."

It also allows time for Courtney to decide on a more-permanent Ways & Means co-chair for the 2019 Legislature, when the next two-year budget will be developed.

The co-chair needs to be fiscally and politically astute, and in sync with Courtney. He says he doesn't tell the Ways & Means leaders what to do. That might be true as far as giving direct orders. But they sure know what Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek want.

Devlin was a budget master but his off-the-cuff comments could draw Courtney's ire. For a time, a Senate staffer was assigned to accompany Devlin whenever he spoke with the press.

• More changes coming: Courtney also rearranged several other Senate committees, both to expand them and to replace Kruse. He had indefinitely removed Kruse from committees this fall for repeated smoking in his office, which is illegal, and for allegedly failing to follow past corrective action on sexual harassment.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.