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Willamette Week’s One-Sided Take On Oregon’s Grad Rates

Political reporter for Portland’s alt-weekly hands the mic to teachers union

Nigel Jaquiss has a new take on Oregon’s embarrassingly low statewide high school graduation rate in Willamette Week, Portland’s weekly alternative rag. It’s short, sweet, and essentially gives the Oregon Education Association (OEA) a platform to recite its current talking points around school funding.

Jaquiss notes that recently released data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that Oregon’s graduation rate (at 74.8%) is the third worst in the nation. He then turns to OEA president John Larson to explain why so many kids in the Beaver State can’t seem to make it through four years of high school.

Larson’s answer? Money. (Shocker!)

“Our students are continuing to pay the price for our inadequate funding of public education,” Larson says. “Oregonians must come together and solve our school funding crisis so that all Oregon students have the opportunity to reach their highest potential.”

OEA president John Larson

Larson is correct in a sense. Oregon’s public school districts are facing a fiscal crisis, but it has nothing to do with inadequate funding. In fact, NEA’s 2016 Annual Rankings & Estimates Report ranked the state 23th in per-pupil funding, estimating that Oregon spent, on average, about $11,127 per student in 2015. So Larson’s contention that kids aren’t graduating high school because the state won’t spend enough money doesn’t hold water.

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So why then are school district budgets getting squeezed? As I wrote earlier this summer, the real culprits are skyrocketing health care costs and pension obligations. Oregon has the most expensive public employee health insurance on the West Coast and its public employee pension system is grappling with a $22 billion unfunded liability. Those rising costs are being passed on school districts.

Over the years, numerous legislative attempts have been made to reform Oregon’s health insurance and pension systems in an effort to rein in costs. However, OEA and its allies have used their considerable clout in Salem to stop those proposals dead in their tracks. Instead, the union has made it their mission to convince the public that lawmakers have failed to allocate the necessary funding for schools.

By giving credence to Larson’s assessment, Jaquiss simply assisted OEA in reaching that objective. He left Willamette Week’s readers, however, no better informed about the causes behind the graduation rate problem.

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Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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