Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s just-completed audit of high school graduation rates was one of those good news-bad news reports.
While there has been some improvement in the number of students who graduate from high school in four years, overall graduation rates have remained flat if you include students who take longer than four years to graduate.
Improved on-time graduation rates are a good thing for both students and taxpayers, but the bottom line is that too many students — almost one in five — are still leaving school without earning a diploma.
The new audit is useful because it drills down below these numbers to look at which groups are struggling and what might be done to help them.
This is the kind of information that is needed for the state Department of Education to set priorities and craft a plan to reach these goals.
Auditors were critical of the department’s response to low graduation rates in the past, saying it needs “to step up its game and assume its leadership role to make Oregon a leader in education.”
This puts the ball squarely in the court of the department’s new acting head, Colt Gill, a former superintendent of Bethel School District.
Gill was named the acting deputy superintendent in October after his predecessor was fired. Based on Gill’s initial response to the audit, Gov. Kate Brown’s confidence in him is justified.
Gill concurred with the audit recommendations made by the secretary of state — and outlined efforts that are planned or already underway to deal with the concerns raised by auditors. In some cases, these efforts surpass the recommendations or goals outlined in the audit.
This kind of initiative is going to be needed. Based on federal budget priorities, Oregon public schools are likely to face increased financial pressure in the next few years.
For example, plans at the federal level to do away with the state and local tax exemption, or SALT, are likely to make it even harder to increase local or state taxes to pay for improvements in education.
Currently, taxpayers are allowed to deduct state and local taxes when they file their federal income taxes. In Eugene, for example, a homeowner with an income of $75,000 currently can deduct about $10,300 in state and local taxes from his or her federal income tax obligation, according to the Government Finance Officers Association. Remove those deductions, and that homeowner will pay about $1,550 more in taxes per year.
The vast majority of taxpayers who benefit from these SALT deductions are middle income or working class.
For example, about eight times as many taxpayers earning less than $25,000 a year claim this deduction nationally compared to people with an income of $1 million or more.
If this tax break goes away, it is likely to make it harder to pass state or local tax measures for schools.
The good news is initiatives already underway within Oregon should help improve graduation rates, including recent increases in funding for Career and Technical Education. But it’s going to require building a partnership between the Department of Education, local school districts and community members to improve graduation rates in the face of these new challenges.