Kitzhaber education spending plan heavy on preschool, kindergarten, near …

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s education spending proposals for 2015-17 would deliver huge gains for early childhood education and primary school reading instruction while holding the rest of K-12 education at a relative standstill.

For higher education, he proposes relatively large increases – but not enough to restore universities and community colleges to the state-funding levels they received during pre-recession years of 2000 and 2008.

Overall, the governor proposed to raise spending on education from babyhood to college by 9 percent, compared with a projected 11 percent increase in the state budget overall. He released his $18.6 billion spending, outlined in a 576-page publication, proposal Monday.

If the Legislature were to approve his plan, education for children in daycare, preschool and kindergarten would get a huge boost, with thousands more children getting high quality preschool instruction. The state would pay for full-day, rather than half-day, kindergarten, and funding would be generous enough that those classes would average just 21 students or so, his advisers said.

But the base funding for the rest of K-12 education would rise imperceptibly, from $6.65 billion to $6.69 billion.

Hanna Vaandering, president of the state teachers union, bristled at the notion that high schools are supposed to dramatically boost graduation rates and families are expected to be satisfied with the quality of education with base school funding held flat.

“We have to get serious,” she said. “The current learning environment for our students is woefully inadequate. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have these expectations that every child will graduate by 2025” while Oregon has some of the largest class sizes in the nation, she said.

Betsy Miller-Jones, head of the Oregon Schools Boards Association, joined Vaandering in decrying the miniscule increase in base funding. Both said they will lobby lawmakers hard to steer more money to public schools.

Kitzhaber agreed that class sizes in the lower grades are too large in Oregon but said districts already receive enough money that they could reduce them, “if they focus on it.”

He also said that by proposing Oregon pump about $350 million in new money into early childhood, preschool and kindergarten, he choose the most effective way to improve educational results and the only fair way to help low-income, minority, rural and second-language children, who tend to start kindergarten already far behind.

“If you have kids who arrive in kindergarten who, because of socioeconomic issues, are not ready to learn… it doesn’t matter how small the class size is, that child is going to struggle. … If you want to get rid of the disparities in our state, if you want our kids to thrive, if you want to increase high school graduation rates, you have got to start investing in kids very, very early.

“I view primary and secondary education as starting at birth… If we simply fund full-day kindergarten as a one-off, we’re going to continue have all these kids that are going to come in not ready and they’re not going to be reading at level by third grade… So we have to be a bit more intellectually honest.”

He says his spending plan for preschool, all-day kindergarten and targeted literacy efforts, if approved, will result in more than 90 percent of third-graders reading at grade level by 2020. Currently, just 66 percent can.

For higher education, the governor proposed increasing funding for public universities by 14 percent and for community colleges, where enrollments are projected to continue to decline, by 7 percent.

Leaders from both sectors were quick to say those increases aren’t enough to put higher education back where it needs to be, both for students and for the Oregon economy.

Kitzhaber also recommended increasing state need-based college financial aid by $26 million, or nearly 25 percent. That was much less than his higher education commission had recommended to put two years of college in reach for all low-income Oregonians: $69 million.

But Kitzhaber says strengthening high schools will do more to give low-income students a better shot at finishing college, given finite resources, said Dani Ledezma, his education adviser. Specifically, she said, his spending plan calls for adding more career-tech classes, better matching math and writing instruction to what colleges require and ensuring more students earn college credit while still in high school.

“There are trade-offs the governor has to think about,” she said. “We are proud of the numbers we got to.”

— Betsy Hammond