Measure 98- Cure For Oregon's Dropout Problem Or 'Unfunded Mandate'

Nov 1, 2016

Schools are on the Oregon ballot in a big way. The corporate tax initiative, Measure 97, would raise billions - much of it for schools. Scan down a little further and Measure 98 would direct state funding to high school programs - dropout prevention, college readiness and career training. It would not raise taxes. But as Rob Manning reports, Measure 98 is raising some concerns. 

Governor Kate Brown visited Portland’s Madison High School the first week of school, to see how career education helps students graduate.

“I believe these types of programs give students hands-on learning experiences that awaken them to the power of their own potential,” Brown said.

Ballot Measure 98 would spend $800 per high school student. It promises to boost Oregon’s nearly worst in the country graduation rate by investing more in career education, college prep and student support. Tim Nesbitt is one of the measure’s architects and a past advisor to two Oregon governors. 

“Within four years, we should see an increase in the overall graduation rate of six points, above the current trend line, and higher than that for low-income students,” Nesbitt says.  

That’s from a consultants’ study the campaign commissioned.  

Measure 98 wouldn’t raise taxes and doesn’t have a funding source. Nesbitt says there will be money in state coffers to pay for it.  

“We have more people working and paying taxes in Oregon than ever before," he says. "We’re going to have the highest level of state revenues we’ve ever had.”  

But costs are increasing, too. Oregon’s legislative fiscal office forecasts a one-point-three billion dollar shortfall in the next two-year budget.  

That’s after years of funding schools below recommended levels. Educators like Pat Burk are concerned.  

Burk worked near the top of the Oregon Department of Education and Portland Public Schools before joining the faculty at Portland State.   

“There are a lot of unfunded needs in our schools," Burk says. "But this sets aside $800 dollars per high school student to do only three things.”  

Burk notes that career-technical education, especially, requires big upfront investments in equipment and expert staff. Will legislators commit the measure’s $150 million a year in the years to come? Measure 98 is not a constitutional amendment, so they don’t have to. And with costs on the horizon, like public employee retirement, Burk calls the funding “iffy.”   

“And the lack of certainty of the funds moving into the future, coupled with the increase in PERS costs, have given me a lot of reason to question the wisdom of Measure 98 at this time,” Burk says.

Measure 98 has the support of numerous business and labor groups - though the statewide teachers union quietly opposes it.  

It was endorsed by the Oregon School Boards Association, some months ago. But one of its board members – Paul Anthony – says he wound up voting “no,” when he filled out his own ballot last week.  

“I had thought that this would be good for the schools and good for Oregon," he says. "Now, yes, I’m changing my mind.”  

Anthony is on the Portland school board, and has kids at Benson Polytechnic High School. He loves career education. But Measure 98 requires districts to (quote) “establish and expand” opportunities – not just maintain efforts, like Benson’s.   

Anthony worries about balancing a budget if the corporate tax initiative, Measure 97 fails, but Measure 98 passes.  

“That is going to be an enormous unfunded mandate on the district, for which there will be no money," Anthony says. "That will put us in a world of hurt going forward.”  

Measure 98 backer, Tim Nesbitt, says there would be money for it, whatever happens with Measure 97.  

“I know there’s always one to two percent of the budget in play in any given budget period," he says. "What we’re talking about here is a commitment of new state resources amounting to about one-point-four percent to tackle what is arguably the most important and compelling problem to solve in our K-12 school system.”  

The debate isn’t just about where the money would come from. It’s also about where it would go. Measure 98 focuses on high school. But some contend that if you’re looking at using hands-on learning to keep kids in school – you should start in middle school.     

Backers acknowledge that it’s not just Oregon high schools that need help. But they say research shows the strategies in Measure 98 can turn many potential dropouts into graduates, in the years to come.

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting