In the struggle to find what works educationally, and to fund programs that are winners, Oregon loses. The state’s graduation rate, among the worst in the nation, means about 10,000 young Oregonians drop out or fail to complete high school on time every year. Who are these students? And what becomes of them?
They are young people who couldn’t quite find their way and found high school to be fruitless or overwhelming. Upon dropping out or finishing late, they typically struggle to find home and a job and, perhaps, a family. Engaged citizenship? Survival comes first. Like the education system that somehow failed to engage them, these young people lose: in their failure to find work and, if requiring social services down the line, in becoming society’s burden.
Few numbers are more chilling than those furnished by the Oregon Employment Department. Young people from 16 to 24 years of age in 2015 made up 12 percent of the state’s labor force yet accounted for 27 percent of the state’s unemployed. On the flip side of the equation, significantly, are Oregon industries that profess not to be able to find the right skilled workers when they have jobs available.
Oregon has tried to fix this, though the number of high school career technical education programs statewide plunged from 1,202 in the academic year 1999-2000 to 690 in 2014-2015. Projections, despite a hopping economy, are grim. The Portland research firm ECONorthwest calculates that the state’s on-time graduation rate will notch up only four percentage points between now and 2029. That means 1 in 5 students starting kindergarten in Oregon this year will fail to graduate from high school at all or on time. The Class of 2029 will deliver to Oregon a swollen cohort of undereducated, struggling citizens whose likely prospect will be to lose, holding themselves and Oregon back.
Measure 98 stands a solid chance at turning this around. It requires no new taxes but would direct the Legislature to add to the K-12 budget revenue to be used exclusively for career technical training, dropout prevention efforts and access to college-level courses. It works out to $800 per student, but local school districts would have to apply for the money and then decide how to fashion qualifying programs that meet local needs. The state’s Department of Education would be charged with doling out the money and tracking results.
Nothing’s a sure bet. Accountability will be everything. The measure leans on the secretary of state to conduct financial and program audits of the spending and to gauge effectiveness of the effort. Good. But it will be essential that both the DOE and the secretary of state are in sync in their attempts to clearly align student success or failure with the underwritten programs. The burden of reporting on participating school districts, meanwhile, must be to accurately track student attendance — again, with an eye to correlating such data with participation in funded programs and, ultimately, graduation.
Budgeting by ballot measure can be risky. It constrains the Legislature in balancing a budget entirely of its own devising. But the fortunes of high schoolers statewide are too grim not to act.
Proponents of Measure 98, among them former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, cite short-term pilot projects in recent years that show bolstered efforts by schools at student retention and technical training to re-engage students who otherwise would slip away from school. That, among other things, makes the promise — and comparatively low price — of Measure 98 compelling. Voters should accept the risk as low and say yes.