Read the original article in The Oregonian here.
The Oregonian editorial board has repeated the biennial shooting of the messenger of the Quality Education Commission Report so that the public does not need to worry about the ongoing underfunding of Oregon education. Using terms like “fantasy,” “(Walter) Mitty-worthy daydreaming,” “imaginary shortfall,” and “ritual self-flagellation,” the editorial presents a dismissive response to the constitutionally required analysis of Oregon education finances. Citing the potential impact of a legal challenge to recent PERS reform, it suggests that there is “a lot to be said for planning for the worst;” and Oregonians would be better served by a Legislature “that looks first at ways to live within its means.”
The editorial reflects a common problem in understanding the Quality Education Model; i.e., we tend to focus only on the overall funding gap figure and not on the ability of the model to sharpen our financial thinking. 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 became possible to objectively look at program costs in Oregon schools. 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.
It then 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? 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. For over two decades we have watched in frustration as schools have been stripped of the very services needed for student success. The report demonstrates that we can, with targeted investments, make progress in reducing the funding gap.
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 to Oregon children and taxpayers is full-day kindergarten. What would it cost to provide this in all 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. What does it cost to achieve a certain class size? The QEM provides the tools for concretely answering questions like this. This adds specificity and reality to school financial deliberations. Those disappearing programs and large class sizes are real in Oregon. There is no pretending here.
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.
Patrick Burk, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. He was a member of the original Legislative Council on the Quality Education Model.