Our state is facing a fork in the road that will affect its trajectory for years to come. This year, the governor and legislative leaders have expressed a desire to address funding shortfalls that have plagued K-12 education since the passage of Measure 5 in 1990. It is vital that we all come together to seize the moment and support this effort to reinvest in education.
As president of Oregon’s flagship university, I normally find myself advocating for funding for our public universities. While I maintain that this is still necessary and will continue to fight for more state higher education resources, I want to focus today on K-12 public education. We must come together to support additional funding for K-12; without it, the foundation for young people to succeed at the University of Oregon or other institutions — and ultimately in their lives after college — will be shaky at best.
The numbers paint a bleak picture of K-12 education in our state currently. In 2016, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Oregon ranked third from the bottom in high school graduation rates, ahead of only Nevada and New Mexico. Oregon’s overall 75 percent graduation rate masks large disparities among racial and ethnic minorities — 66 percent and 69 percent for black and Hispanic students, respectively.
There are many issues that contribute to poor graduation rates. Students in Oregon’s public schools spend fewer days in school than any other state. Class sizes at many of our schools are also much larger than optimal for quality learning. Mental health and counseling services have been slashed as students’ needs have grown.
Too little instruction time, too large classes, too few services, and too low graduation rates reflect insufficient financial support. In 1990, Oregon ranked 15th among all states in funding per student; today we rank 29th. The state’s Quality Education Commission estimates that an additional $2 billion dollars per year in revenue would permit our schools to operate effectively and better address students' needs.
Certainly, many will look at these numbers and ask whether the state is spending existing revenue efficiently and wisely. I agree that legislators need to look at ways to contain escalating costs as part of any responsible budget conversation. They must also insist on accountability and performance from our schools and teachers. But our state cannot and must not hold a generation of young people hostage by delaying meaningful reform.
Today’s K-12 students are the key to our state’s future. If we fail to invest in their education the consequences will be enormous. In addition to consigning a large portion of our future workforce to underemployment, we will limit our state’s ability to grow our economy, create new high-skilled jobs, combat racial and ethnic disparities, and afford ambitious plans to achieve social equity and environmental protection. Now is the time to support more revenue for our K-12 schools.
Michael H. Schill is president of the University of Oregon and a professor of law.