The Real Crisis in Public Education

Dr. Ramin Farahmandpur is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy.  Dr. Farahmandpur appeared as a Guest Columnist in the Opinion Section of The Oregonian on September 14, 2014.  His comments are reprinted here with his permission. 


The Real Crisis in Public Education: Guest Opinion

By Ramin Farahmandpur;

The Oregonian; September 14, 2014

With all eyes on the governor’s race this fall, incumbent John Kitzhaber is touting his record in reforming public education.  The good doctor has misdiagnosed the patient. Oregon’s education system suffers not from a poverty of policy, but from a poverty of investment.

Years of budget cuts in K-12 education have given Oregon one of the shortest school years in the country.  Disinvestment has caused the explosion of class sizes—also one of the nation’s highest.  Inadequate investment has led to layoffs of teachers, librarians, custodians, counselors, administrators and other school personnel.

Oregon’s higher education system fares no better. Its restructuring by the governor’s misnamed Oregon Education Investment Board has failed to resolve the many challenges students, faculty and administrators confront. Soaring college tuition; growing student debt (now estimated at $1.2 trillion nationally); the overuse of adjunct and part-time faculty; and cutbacks of student services, especially for first-generation and low-income students, are a few of the many issues higher education faces.

It is hard to imagine how we will be able to reach the aspirational goals of the governor’s 2011 education reform policy. Dubbed “40-40-20,” this reform calls for an unrealistic 100 percent high school graduation rate and 80 percent post-secondary degree attainment by the year 2025. Because this goal does not include more funding, it must be said: We cannot wish our way to excellence.

Within Salem’s political circles, there are few debates about adequate funding. Drowned out are the voices of teachers, parents, students and community advocates who care about children, a growing number of whom are hungry, homeless and hurting.

If we believe that education is one of the pillars of a healthy democracy, then it is our responsibility to ensure that educational opportunity is extended to all. As education philosopher John Dewey once noted, what the best and wisest parents want for their own children must be what the community wants for all its children.

Oregonians should demand that our civic leaders and politicians wake up. Our prosperity depends on a well-funded public education system, not on a numbers game focused on churning out a threshold quantity of diplomas.  It is only with the cooperation of our citizens, unions and private businesses working together that our system will flourish.

What we do not need are superfluous bureaucratic layers that have taken decision-making power from communities and concentrated it in the hands of the state.

At a time when the rhetoric of education accountability has dominated public debates, should we not expect comparable accountability from our leaders in the Legislature and the governor’s office? After all, they serve the public interest. They, too, must acknowledge the predicament of public education for what it is: a crisis of disinvestment and underfunding.

Ramin Farahmandpur, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University.