The Hydraulics of Education Funding
For over three decades Oregon has failed to maintain an adequate investment in public education. In postsecondary education, for example, state government has retreated significantly from its funding role while pushing a greater share of costs on to students through tuition increases.
During the 1990s, voter initiatives to curb property taxes shifted the bulk of K-12 school funding to the state and its income-tax-heavy revenue system. The weak economy in recent years has kept unemployment high and dampened tax receipts, causing a pinch in state-level K-12 funding. Rising costs in the state Medicaid program and prisons draw increasingly on limited state funds. And the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is fraught with unwise embedded arrangements that have created unsustainable and rising retirement costs that rob school districts, along with state and local governments, of operating funds.
Economic growth that produces more good paying jobs would greatly improve education funding. So would reform of Oregon’s lopsided revenue system. Unfortunately, PERS cost reforms adopted by the Legislature in 2013 were struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court in 2015. Fiscal experts fear that the resulting costs will create significant demand and strain on operating budgets for school districts and local governments, including teacher layoffs and shorter school days of the kind Oregon has experienced in the past.
Education Redesign Calls for Investing More Wisely
We Should Set and Support Outcomes We Want
As noted in the inset at right, there is no question that Oregon has significantly under invested in education. Virtually everyone agrees that the state must improve on that score. However, more money by itself will not fix the most significant barrier to giving our young a better education and achieving our attainment goals.
We Have a Design Problem
Simply put, our education system is not designed to get us there. It’s not the fault of our educators, who work hard within the constraints of the existing system. More money, harder work, and the best intentions will not overcome the system’s outmoded design. Nor will punishment of the kind that was tried and largely failed under the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation. Oregon education needs a fundamental redesign of the kind now under way.
What’s Wrong with the Old Design?
We didn’t set specific outcomes as a basis for investment and accountability. In hindsight, our approach to outcomes could probably be characterized as a complacent bell curve assumption. We assumed that a certain number of students would excel and go far, that a broader swath in the middle would do middling well, and that a certain contingent on the other end of the curve would not get very far.
So, we funded institutions and enrollments rather than investing in student outcomes. Even when No Child Left Behind insisted on Annual Yearly Progress in our elementary and secondary schools (to improve student outcomes on standardized tests), the outcomes were not the result of our choices, our targets, and our specific investments to achieve those outcomes. We set no outcomes of any kind for our postsecondary investments.
Just as we were not organized by expectations or investments to improve student outcomes, we were not organized to do so by governance. Our highest state education boards served primarily regulatory and housekeeping functions. They were not charged or organized to produce better student outcomes. While they distributed state (and federal) funds to teaching institutions, they did not use the state’s purse to demand specific performance outcomes from those recipients.
Under no explicit expectations to produce better outcomes, our schools continued to organize learning – and credit for learning – around a one-size-fits-all approach. That is, all students were expected to learn at the same pace and in the same way, even though everyone learns best through different kinds of engagement and at different rates. That prevailing design for teaching and learning works for a lot of our students, but not enough of them. Fast learners become frustrated or bored and often disengaged. Students who need more time or better calibrated learning experiences get lost, flounder, or quit. Others are promoted with just enough knowledge and skill that they are ill prepared and then fail in subsequent studies along the academic pathway.
Other Shortcomings in the Legacy Design
Funding institutions on the basis of enrollments, rather than investing in student outcomes, has incented institutions to zealously focus on protecting enrollment. At times they have done so rather than supporting programs, such as dual secondary and postsecondary enrollment, that would produce better options for students.
Grades and credit awarded in this system are not uniform or reliable indicators of what students know and can do. They reflect a mix of inputs besides student competence. They average in early learning failures with later learning success. They vary from classroom to classroom, school to school, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Oregon has not had a student data system truly useful to students, teachers, and policy makers. Oregon has long needed a comprehensive, longitudinal student record system that 1) enables student to compile an individual learning record transferable from grade to grade, school to school, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, 2) informs teachers of incoming students what those students do and don’t need in the way of academic development, 3) provides a comprehensive picture of student outcomes by which to measure school performance, and 4) provides a broad picture of system performance to guide legislators and others in making education policy and investment decisions.