OK, proponents of the Education Reform Act of 1991, you've had your chance. Your ideas didn't work. Now, it's time for Oregon to stop trying to educate students from Salem.
This law, which introduced the now-reviled Certificate of Initial Mastery, earns an "A" for effort but an "F" for achievement. It seems that Oregon's public school teachers produced well-educated children in spite of this law, which requires tens of thousands of work samples from students and countless hours of school staff time, on top of the time and money spent on locally developed curriculum and grading systems.
"The teacher drop-out rate in Oregon is alarming," writes the Oregon Tax Research think tank in Portland. "Roughly 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, according to the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission."
OTR interviewed educators in 2001 and learned anecdotally that a top-down approach to public education drives teachers away.
"The transfer of power out of the hands of Oregon's teachers is the most prevalent problem identified in this report, manifesting itself in every educational subject area," OTR writes. "One charter school coordinator commented that an increasing number of teachers are willing to take a cut in pay to leave traditional public schools and teach in a charter school where there is more academic freedom."
So what should replace ERA? How about a local-control bill that provides flexibility and funding to meet the federal mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act?
However, as we make the leap from the question of accountability to the issue of funding, it's important to recognize several important distinctions.
With accountability, local is best. It stands to reason that school staff should be accountable first and foremost to local parents. Then, staff should answer to the state and federal levels of government that foot much of the bill for education. However, this level of accountability should never interfere with the task at hand - educating children. Oregon's ERA law clearly interfered with the education process.
With financing, however, local doesn't work very well.
We suspect that every state in the nation has struggled with education funding equalization - namely, the principle that taxpayers should not discriminate when paying for a child's education. No matter where students live, they should receive a fair apportionment of the overall pie (discretion is given to spend more for special-needs students).
Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, understands this principle of equal and fair funding. Apparently, the Portland School District does not. The Portland School District, albeit confronted with painful cuts, including reduction of school days, eagerly embraced the notion of endorsing a local tax to backfill its bank accounts. Ferrioli caught Portlanders in their contradiction. The good citizens of Portland didn't side with rural schools when the Oregon Legislature refused to protect a federal reimbursement to rural counties and schools. This allocation was predicated on the loss of timber revenue in specific counties. This money was akin to locally generated revenue because of the unique characteristics of the target counties where the money was intended to be spent. Due to the Legislature's neglect, this money sank into the statewide funding formula and ended up in everybody's pockets - including the deep pockets of the Portland School District.
A Senate committee has jumped into the debate over school funding by fielding a bill, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton, which would allow voters to impose local property taxes to fund schools in their communities.
Ringo has the wrong idea. The concept of equalization dooms this proposal from the beginning. No court in the land would permit a wealthy taxing district to boost per-student spending while poor districts nibbled at the leftovers. Meanwhile, Oregon clearly lacks the tax revenue to spread the wealth and assure equal funding of all school districts while still permitting a local property-tax allowance.
Sadly, as is the case with top-down student achievement testing, top-down funding strikes like a blunt instrument. But in the case of funding, local option is no option. We should focus on equality, not on making exceptions for property-rich districts.