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What Policymakers Got Right With Oregon's Student Success Act

Taking over the guest blog this week is Andy Saultz, an assistant professor and the director of the Ph.D. in Education and Leadership Program at Pacific University. He is currently running for the Oregan state legislature and was previously a social studies teacher. This week Andy will be discussing how education policy has shifted in Oregon and why that matters, and how we should expand the scope of what we mean by "education policy."

The Oregon state legislature passed the Student Success Act (SSA) in May 2019, which generates approximately $1 billion a year in additional K-12 funding through a gross-receipts tax on businesses with at least $1 million in annual sales. The policy has been lauded as a once in a generation investment, a game changer for schools in Oregon, and a historic investment in education. While the money is important, I want to focus on several well-crafted policy components of the SSA.

Before diving into the policy details of the SSA, some important context. Oregon, like many states, significantly altered school funding in the early 1990s by simultaneously shifting funding from the local to state level and capping property-tax increases. This combination limited local ability to raise revenue. It also tasked the state legislature with an additional financial responsibility, without specifying how to pay for it. For the past 30 years, school funding, performance, and outcomes have lagged. Oregon currently has the 2nd worst high school graduation rate in the country, and the shortest school year. With that context in mind, here are the details of what I like in the new policy:

Clear objectives

The SSA has two main objectives. First, the new law aims to meet students' mental- and behavioral-health needs. This comes on the heels of a statewide listening tour by the state department of education during which students listed mental-health concerns as the top priority.

Second, the law specifies the goal of increasing academic achievement and reducing academic disparities for historically marginalized groups including: students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners, students living in poverty, homeless students, and students in foster care. In short, the law tasked districts with addressing historic inequities across subgroups.

The policy goals are clear and set a framework for districts to prioritize how to use the new funds. My hope is this specificity will help guide district- and community-level decisionmaking.

Multiple options

The SSA divides the new revenue into two main buckets. The first half of the money goes to early learning (20 percent) and statewide education initiatives (30 percent). Early learning includes bolstering the number of preschool slots, professional development for early-childhood educators, and parent engagement. There are a whole host of new statewide programs, including an expansion of nutrition programs, professional learning for educators, summer school for Title I schools, and increased money for high-cost disability services. These are laudable programs, but I like the design of the second portion of the money better because it allows for variation across districts.

The second bucket creates a "school improvement fund." This money will be allocated in a noncompetitive grant for which districts must submit a plan to the state department of education outlining how they will spend the money. There are broad areas where money may be spent: instructional time, reducing class size, health and safety, and supporting well-rounded education (i.e., music and art programs). By allowing for variation, the law acknowledges that communities need different things. I favor this approach to policymaking, which sets clear goals and allows for multiple ways for schools and districts to pursue improvement.

Local control

Policymakers are constantly asking "what" should be done. Figuring out where to spend limited resources, how to hold public institutions accountable, and ways to support educators are all worthy goals. But too often policymakers don't ask the question about "who" should make the decision. The SSA allows local decisionmakers to decide where to use these new funds. As a former school board member, I remember all too well the numerous top-down policies that ignored local conditions. States should provide broad structures for schooling but allow for rigid flexibility in the system to encourage variation. In this regard, a state must balance the concern for equity, best addressed at the state level, with flexibility, in recognition that local conditions, priorities, and needs vary. SSA strikes this balance.

Requiring community input

In addition to deferring to school board expertise and understanding of local conditions, the SSA requires community input throughout the process of determining what a district will fund. Policymakers were wise to go beyond listing generic community engagement as the desired end goal. Instead, the SSA requires districts to build on the strengths and assets of historically marginalized groups in the community, including students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners, and students navigating poverty. Many educational policies have tasked districts with engaging the community. The SSA provides a quality example of being more intentional about reaching out to groups that are too often left out.

I hope others take note of the policy design of the SSA. It sets clear goals, it allows for local decisionmaking, builds in flexibility, and requires community involvement to drive prioritization on how to use the money. My hope is that Oregon can find the right balance among investment, flexibility, and accountability.

— Andy Saultz

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