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Oregon’s education system in need of direction

Corvallis Gazette-Times, Oct. 26

Published on November 2, 2017 5:12PM

We’re still a little puzzled over Gov. Kate Brown’s firing of Salam Noor, the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction.

Brown said that she was not satisfied with Noor’s ability to carry out her vision for Oregon’s education system and asked for his resignation. The firing came a little more than two years after Brown picked Noor to oversee the state’s K-12 schools. Colt Gill, Brown’s education innovation officer, was picked to be Noor’s interim replacement.

Of course, we don’t dispute Brown’s ability to fire her cabinet members at will.

We were curious, though, about the reference to Brown’s vision for the state’s educational system, so we were pleased to read a copy of a letter the governor sent earlier this month to members of her “education cabinet.” (The members of the education cabinet are Gill; Lindsey Capps, the state’s chief education officer; Elizabeth Keller, the acting executive director of the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission; Miriam Calderon, the director of the Early Learning System; and Ben Cannon, the executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.)

The letter purports to outline Brown’s vision for Oregon education. It’s awfully light on specifics — although, to be fair, it does highlight some promising areas that the governor has consistently supported, such as an emphasis on early education.

It also ignores the biggest financial threat facing Oregon public schools, but more about that later.

Brown outlines two “overarching guiding principles” in the letter: One asks for a “high standard of accountability” in existing and new programs. The other, which refers to the state’s “equity lens” for education, is a commitment that all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, get the full benefit of programs.

There’s not much to argue with in those goals, although they’re plenty vague.

The specific goals have a little more meat:

• Brown wants her cabinet to work toward developing a unified education budget for 2019-21 that helps improve school readiness, attendance and completion rates. That has promise, but if it’s not implemented properly, it could turn into a major mess. Color us skeptical right now.

• She wants to develop a new statewide early learning plan — and it is true that investments in programs such as Head Start and quality preschools could pay off handsomely down the road.

• She wants to achieve what she calls “aggressive high school graduation goals.” She’s seeking a 90 percent four-year cohort graduation rate by 2025. In some areas, to be fair, that is aggressive. But it’s a step back from the state’s goal that every adult Oregonian have a high school degree by 2025.

• She wants to develop career-connected learning that’s aligned with workforce needs. The passage of Ballot Measure 98 freed up some money for these programs, although we still object to the fact that the measure came without a funding source.

What goes unmentioned in the letter is any effort to deal with the growing unfunded liability from the state’s public pension system, something that threatens the ability of school districts to provide any kind of service to students.

The unfunded liability in Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System was up to $25 billion at last report. Brown is awaiting a report from a task force that may include suggestions to trim $5 billion from that amount.

Let’s assume for the time being that the group is successful in that goal, a highly dubious assumption. But we still would have no plan to manage the remaining $20 billion shortfall. What’s the governor’s vision for handling that? Educators and students around the state will want to know about that.


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