Shooting the Messenger Doesn’t Kill the Message

A recent editorial in The Oregonian has repeated the biennial shooting of the messenger of the Quality Education Commission Report by creating the illusion that the public does not need to worry about the ongoing and chronic underfunding of Oregon education. (http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/12/a_reminder_of_the_value_of_per.html) Using terms like “fantasy,” “Mitty-worthy daydreaming,” “imaginary shortfall,” and “ritual self-flagellation,” the editorial repeats an all-too-common dismissive response to the constitutionally required analysis of Oregon education finances. Instead of benefiting from one of the few attempts to examine Oregon education funding in concrete terms, the editorial concludes that Oregonians should prepare for recent changes in the Public Employee Retirement System regulations to be overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court and should expect that improving upon the recent modest gains in school funding should be constrained by a Legislature “that looks first at ways to live within its means.”

What is the Quality Education Model?

The editorial perpetuates a common misunderstanding of what the Quality Education Model does. The QEM, from its beginning, was designed to do a few basic things. First, it created a method to look at the costs of common education services in a way that provides comparability across all districts in the state. Using the actual level of spending, it objectively looks at program costs in Oregon schools. It identifies characteristics of effective elementary, middle and high schools and establishes a projected cost of those items in Oregon. These calculations have been updated every two years since the first report was issued by the Legislative Council on the Oregon Quality Education Model in June, 1999. They are based on a “Common Chart of Accounts” in place in Oregon schools that provides common definitions for categories of expenditures. Imaginary? Hardly. At the core of the model are hard numbers of what Oregon districts actually spend on teachers, books, transportation, special education, technology, etc. The model, therefore, provides a set of choices and their costs for thinking about the kind of schools we want in our state.

What Does a Full Service School Cost in Oregon?

Second, it asks a very simple question: what would it cost to provide a full service school to every Oregon student based upon that current expenditure? Aspirational? Yes. But labeling it “fantasy” and “daydreaming” is no answer for the children and families who have something much less than full service in their schools. They may more likely refer to Oregon spending as “unfair,” “discriminatory” and “inadequate” for Oregon’s economic future. Is it fantasy that every child should have a reasonable class size, access to support and special services, a librarian, a music teacher, physical education? How are we to decide who receives these services and who does not? And what would it cost to provide those services? Some of them? All of them? Phase them in over time? These are all valid questions that can be answered using the QEM as a tool.

As the current report from the Joint Special Committee on Public Education Appropriation points out, there have been biennia where the funding “gap” between the full model and actual expenditure has been narrowed. In four consecutive years, for example, in the 2005-07 and 2007-09 biennia, the gap was narrowed. (See p. 14 of the Report: http://library.state.or.us/repository/2008/200812221407571/2013-2015.pdf) If all of the changes approved by the Legislature in the 2013 Session and in the Special Session survive, the gap is reduced from $3.04 billion to $1.90 billion. In other words, in 3 of the last 6 biennia, the gap between full funding of the QEM and actual funding levels has been narrowed. The QEM puts a stake in the ground for planning that, at least, helps us understand the fiscal difference between full service schools and what we currently have. It is up to us, citizens and legislators, to decide what we want for our children. Ritual self-flagellation? No. It demonstrates that progress is possible after over two decades of frustration from the passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990 to today. Citizens are tired of watching schools be stripped of the very services needed for student success.

There is good news and bad news here. The gap is, indeed, narrowed and there is reason for optimism that the Legislature could begin to string together several biennial budgets that restore some of the budget ground that has been lost. But the gap is still $1.9 billion. By continuing on a path of fiscal system reform coupled with strategic investment, we have already demonstrated that progress can be made.

Where Are the Most Strategic Investments?

Third, as a planning tool, it allows the legislature, school boards, citizens, administrators, and, even, editorial boards, to look at actual costs of individual areas of expenditure. We know, for example, that an area with huge upside return on investment for Oregon students and taxpayers is full day kindergarten. What would it cost to provide this in Oregon schools?

And what of increasing class sizes and declining numbers of teachers? An analysis from a recent New York Times article reported that Oregon has the sixth highest rate of loss of education personnel per 100 students in the country. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/education/subtract-teachers-add-pupils-math-of-todays-jammed-schools.html) According to the Oregon Statewide Report Card, 2012-13, the total number of teachers in Oregon districts and ESDs declined from 31,659 (2008-09) to 28,065 (2012-13). Over the same period of time, the student enrollment increased to 563,714 after 4 consecutive years of decline. The student population also continues to become more diverse with increasing ethnic/racial diversity (35.3% of students), language diversity (55,402 English Learners), and students with special needs (13.3% in special education and 7.11% in Talented and Gifted programs). See Oregon Statewide Report Card (http://www.ode.state.or.us/data/annreportcard/rptcard2013.pdf). Fewer teachers attempting to meet the needs of larger and more diverse classes has become the norm in Oregon schools; but this information is known primarily to parents and staff. Since The Oregonian has reported on these issues in the past, it is reasonable to assume that its editors are also aware.

Moving Forward

If we are to find workable pathways for improved success, it is important to know where to invest, what to invest in and what the cost of investment will be. The QEM provides the tools for answering questions like this. Individual elements of the model are based on actual Oregon school district expenditures. The most practical and informative use of the model is to look at program costs in current dollars. This adds specificity and reality to school financial deliberations. Those disappearing programs and larger class sizes are real in Oregon. There is no pretending here.

The editorial correctly raises a critical issue, i.e., there is no guarantee that even the recent modest increases in funding will survive legal scrutiny. The changes in the PERS system face a review by the Oregon Supreme Court. And the additional $100 million approved in the Special Session does not impact current budgets and only goes into effect in 2014-15. These factors could place significant downward pressure on school budgets. Instead of looking at the 2015 session as a chance to continue modest rebuilding, we will be back to trying to salvage whatever we can of current expenditure.

It is misleading to citizens to suggest that solid fiscal planning is fantasy. In fact, more than ever, we need concrete information on what kind of educational system we want for our children and what that system will cost. The real fantasy is believing that shooting the messenger makes the message go away.

3 thoughts on “Shooting the Messenger Doesn’t Kill the Message

  1. I think it is interesting when we hear that the legislature should live within it’s means and there is simply no more money in the economy to commit to education. We have yet to determine what constitutes an appropriate portion of the economy for use by the public sector. We hear constant concerns that the economy simply cannot support expanded funding of education. It would be interesting to hear, instead, about much this low level of funding is costing our future.

  2. This is an excellent point, Jan. Failure to invest at an appropriate level can, indeed, cost the state even more. Think of the cost to the state in both additional social services and lost productivity due to approximately 30% of students not earning a high school diploma. Another interesting way of looking at this appeared in a report a few months ago from the group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. See the link. Their estimate is that investing in early childhood education would predict a reduction of 1400 inmates in the Oregon prison system creating a savings of $77 million a year.

    http://www.fightcrime.org/multnomah-county-inverness-jail-hosts-event-to-spotlight-cuts-to-crime-through-broader-access-to-quality-preschool/

    You make an excellent point that determining the appropriate level of investment for education is a critical question, not only the overall expenditure, but also the specific targeted expenditure. This is precisely the kind of financial modeling that the QEM provides. Linking level of investment to long-term economic benefit is vital to this conversation.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Pat

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