Gov. Brown’s education ‘vision’ blurred by contradictions



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Gov. Brown’s education ‘vision’ blurred by contradictions: Editorial Agenda 2017

The Oregonian Editorial Board


The forced resignation of Salam Noor, Oregon’s deputy superintendent for education, would seem to be a political two-fer for Gov. Kate Brown.


First, sacking Noor helps give the impression that Brown means business when it comes to reversing the state’s worsening performance in K-12 education, reflected in declining test scores and increasing chronic absenteeism as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Betsy Hammond reported. Second, the change gives her the opportunity to declare to Oregonians that yes, she does, in fact, have a vision for education.


The move fails on both counts. Brown’s automatic response to failures under her leadership has been to jettison the department head. So getting rid of Noor simply continues her pattern of deflecting blame. Her education vision, as laid out in a recent letter to her education cabinet, largely gussies up plans or programs that have long been in the works. But most important, Brown herself has clouded her own education strategy with a mess of contradictory actions. She signed legislation hobbling accountability metrics. She recommended only partial funding for an educational measure she endorsed. And she blocked efforts that would have directed more money to students’ needs, rather than employee benefits. If Brown is serious about digging out of this educational crisis, she must figure out how to back up her words with the policy, funding and follow-through that so far has eluded her.


Consider her emphasis on accountability. In her letter, she notes the importance of measuring student achievement and outcomes. The key way that the state tracks such progress is through standardized tests given to students in third through eighth grades, and to high school juniors. Participation is so important for accurately measuring and comparing schools’ success in educating students that the state pledged to meet a 95 percent participation threshold as part of its plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.


One problem: In 2015, Brown enthusiastically signed a bill pushed by the teachers union that allowed students to opt out of taking such tests for any reason whatsoever. Not surprisingly, students did. As a result, some schools had such low participation rates that administrators cannot draw any meaningful conclusions from the data they do have. That means the state cannot reliably measure whether schools are successfully teaching students grade-level material or accurately measure if they are closing the “achievement gap” between white, higher-income students and minority or low-income students. So much for accountability.


Consider, also, Brown’s proposed budget earlier this year. The governor in 2016 enthusiastically endorsed Ballot Measure 98, which called for increased investment in dropout prevention and career and technical education in high school. She has routinely highlighted the opportunities that career and technical education opens up. But after the measure passed, she recommended devoting less than half the money that the measure called for. The Legislature was more generous – though still considerably short of the ballot measure.


Even her personnel choices reflect muddled objectives. Six months after becoming governor, Brown named Lindsey Capps as her chief education officer, tasked with providing strategic leadership and coordinating education strategy spanning pre-kindergarten through college and career.


But Capps has zero experience as an educator. A former lobbyist and teachers’ union official, Capps has been lauded for his collaborative style and professional demeanor. But when close to 10,000 students a year are dropping out of school and graduation rates are among the worst in the nation, selecting a non-educator as chief education officer sends a curious message. Capps’ annual salary is $143,000.


Brown later added another six-figure-salary position – education innovation officer – and appointed longtime superintendent Colt Gill to the post. His task was to focus on stemming the drop-out rate and helping more students graduate. But Gill lacks his own budget to carry out such functions. Gill, who is assuming Noor’s duties on an interim basis, makes more than $185,000.


Meanwhile, Brown continues to duck the most pressing issue facing education – and social services and public safety and health care and child welfare and any other public function: The ever-escalating burden of the Public Employees Retirement System. Because the pension system carries a $25 billion unfunded liability, all public employers are making higher contributions to the system with larger spikes expected for years to come. That means fewer dollars will go to hiring teachers, counselors and reading specialists and more will go to the PERS system.


Instead of immediately attacking the problem, however, she and other Democratic leaders said reform will have to wait. Until 2019.


That’s time for another 20,000 students to drop out of high school. That’s time for another two rankings showing how low Oregon’s graduation rate has fallen. And that’s time that Oregon students don’t have.


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