Educator rally

Educators and supporters march Feb. 18 in Salem in favor of more K-12 school funding.

Believe it or not, local public schools are already two-thirds of the way through the 2018-19 academic year. Before spring fever hits and thoughts turn to prom and graduation, now is a good time to evaluate where our local districts stand versus the rest of Oregon.

Readers will recall that education — and specifically its funding — was a major campaign theme during the state election cycle in November. Both Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican opponent touted their own plans to get schools the funding they need to operate more effectively. Since the so-called “Great Recession” of 2008, districts in Oregon have struggled to balance PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) liability with the need for classroom teachers and keeping up with state and federal mandates.

One key reporting metric that has been pointed to is the state’s graduation rate. Depending on how it is calculated — and there are almost as many calculation formulas as there are reporting states — it has been noted in some media that Oregon has the second worst graduation rate in the nation.

We are dubious of this. American satirist Mark Twain and former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli are both credited with the salient quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We suspect the state graduation rate that has been reported for maximum political impact does not paint a true picture of where Oregon stands in comparison with the other 49 states.

But even using the current flawed formula, schools here in Eastern Oregon are accomplishing their primary function — graduating a large percentage of their students within four years — at a high rate.

A review of reporting data from the Oregon Department of Education, and assembled by the InterMountain ESD Consortium, which serves 18 school districts in northeast Oregon, shows area graduation rates well in excess of the state average. In fact, 16 out of 18 area districts posted graduation rates above the state average in 2017-18. Ukiah, Union, and Imbler districts posted 100 percent graduation rates last year. Pendleton was at 81 percent and nearly every other district posted rates between 80 and 95 percent. The state average last year was 79 percent.

It should be noted that Hermiston, which opted out of participating in the InterMountain ESD last year, has seen graduation rates between 64 and 74 percent over the past five years.

Currently, Oregon still counts students who move from one district to another against their original school district’s graduation number, so schools must keep tabs on former pupils’ graduation progress even after they leave the district. Oregon also does not count students who attain their GED within just a year or two of their originally scheduled graduation date.

But the most glaring discrepancy when comparing to other states is that Oregon requires 24 credits for graduation when many other states only require as few as 18. There is not a true apples-to-apples comparison to be had. It would only take a few statistical tweaks here and there to move Oregon from the bottom of national graduation rates to at or near the very top.

The bottom line is that we here in Eastern Oregon have very good reason to be proud of the job our local school districts are doing, often under less than ideal circumstances with fewer staff and ultra-tight budgets. Can they improve? Always. So let’s give them the funding they need to make it happen.

And let’s also make sure that funding doesn’t get sliced and diced into well-meaning but ineffectual mandates in Salem. We must trust our educators and administrators to put tax dollars to good use in local classrooms. Take a survey of any community and you’ll find that by and large, the people who are paying the taxes want to see those dollars under local control, directed by the people who best understand the needs.

It’s another reason why having an active local school board is a crucial part of the education system.

When you see a schoolteacher, administrator or school board member from your local district, tell them “thanks!” for the job they are doing.

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