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Rudy Crew's Exit and K-12 Finance Shifts Make Waves in Oregon

Oregon is grappling with major changes to it's K-12 finance system and potentially big trouble with its No Child Left Behind waiver, following the exit of its prominent education czar after about a year on the job.

A few times last year I wrote about big education governance changes underway in Oregon, under the guidance of Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew, the high-profile former superintendent for New York City and Miami-Dade schools, and Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat who appointed Crew to his new post. Crew and Kitzhaber were hammering out the details of "achievement compacts" in which districts had to set goals for a variety of metrics, under the umbrella of Kitzhaber's "40-20-20" goals for education by the year 2025. But the state was also facing significant problems with school funding and with its public-employee retirement system that were a big focus of the 2013 legislative session.

So, how have things turned out? There are a few answers to that, and good variety among them. First, there's Rudy Crew. He's no longer on the job, having resigned July 1 to take over as president of Medgar Evers College in New York City. One of his biggest legacies seems to be a sour one: the expenses he racked up while serving as the state's K-12 czar, including a $1,118 taxpayer-funded trip to California to honor a former colleague, and a four-hour course he taught at the University of Southern California that resulted in a $552 bill to the Oregon public.

On the policy front, Crew sought $150 million for four key initiatives, including preschool reading and regional centers for teacher professional development, Betsy Hammond at The Oregonian notes, but lawmakers were unimpressed and gave him only a fraction of the cash he wanted.

What about school funding in general? It's a major headache—as Betsy Miller-Jones, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, told me in an interview last week, up to 40 percent of districts have been on four-day weeks to cope with budget cuts, with "huge class sizes" persisting to boot. Lawmakers this year tried to resolve both K-12 finance and pension issues at the same time, with a mixed result. They boosted education funding over the 2013-15 biennium by $1 billion, with a twist. Of that amount, $800 million is purely new revenue for public schools, but changes to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), including less-generous cost-of-living adjustments for both current and past employees and an elimination of certain tax breaks, gives districts fiscal relief amounting to an additional $200 million.

"People felt that unless you addressed PERS, you weren't really addressing funding for education," Miller-Jones told me, adding that Kitzhaber has been seeking a special legislative session this year to make further changes to PERS and ultimately "flatten" the upward curve of retirement costs.

And about those class-size numbers: Lawmakers also approved a bill that would require a new study of student-to-teacher ratios, in response to concerns about class sizes reaching the mid-30s.

Advocates for school funding didn't get everything they wanted, however. The Oregon Education Association noted that Republicans didn't bite on tax increases as part of larger budget reforms, and state Republican leaders now say they want business tax relief as part of any special-discussions involving PERS.

After some rough stretches initially for the 2012-13 school year, the achievement compacts initiated under the combined purview of Crew and Kitzhaber might have smoother sailing going ahead, Miller-Jones told me. Part of the early problems, she said, was that there was a misunderstanding between districts and the state about whether the compacts were "high stakes" (they're not, at this point, either in terms of money or other consequences).

Crew, by the way, has been replaced by Nancy Golden, a former local district superintendent in the state, a very positive move, according to Miller-Jones. Crew, she noted, tended to emphasize the stick in the carrot-and-stick approach when dealing with districts.

"I think some people in Oregon were uncomfortable with that," she said. "We respond much more to the carrot approach."

Finally, Oregon made some news today, as my Politics K-12 colleague Michele McNeil reported, when it was placed on "high-risk" status for its NCLB waiver by the U.S. Department of Education over its teacher evaluations. Read more about it in her blog post.

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