16 Apr

Oregon’s yawning gap between aspiration and reality

SALEM – Oregon’s educational goals are inspiring.

The state’s officially adopted target is 40 percent of its population having at least a four-year college degree, for another 40 percent having a two-year degree or a professional credential, and every Oregonian having at least a high school diploma.

It’s an ambitious goal – especially for a state with one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, and bumping along toward the bottom of higher education spending – but it makes sense for the 21st century, when the job market is about to be invaded by self-driving cars, none of whom need to be paid enough to support a family.

Fortunately, Oregon’s goals are resting on its Quality Educational Model, a meticulously calculated design of how much the state needs to spend on its K-12 system, producing qualified students who could flow seamlessly into 40-40-20.
This actually gives the state two guiding principles on education: One is 40-40-20, and the other is “Pay no attention to those numbers behind the curtain” – the numbers showing what we’re actually spending.

For years now, Oregon political and higher education leaders, when asked about the contrast between the state goals and the state effort, have sought to look spiritual and explain that the goals were “aspirational” – meaning, wouldn’t it be nice. It’s been as if President Kennedy’s plan to reach the moon in a decade was by looking up to the sky and wishing really hard.

In this legislative session, Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, offered a bill to abandon 40-40-20 on the grounds that we had no plans or expectations to reach it, a clear-eyed calculation that would itself be a new standard for Oregon. His goal, he said, was “to have a conversation about how our aspirations have not been linked to our funding plans.”

Evans, with a background in the Air Force and the Oregon Air National Guard running to both Iraq and Afghanistan, brought his own perspective to the challenge. “I go back to my military background,” he explained. “I don’t expect 100 percent capability from a fighter squadron that’s at 70 percent capability.”

After the point in the legislative calendar when unwanted legislation gets abandoned, Evans’ bill has ended up in what he calls “a very shallow grave.”

He’s now working on a bill creating a task force to try to bring aspirations and policies within hailing distance of each other. He’d want to take into account the new realities and expectations of schools in the two decades since the Quality Education Model emerged, and believes it is possible to close the gap: “I think people would be willing to invest in education if they had a clear idea about what they’re going to buy.”

A goal of 40 percent of Oregonians having four-year degrees also requires, of course, strong and growing universities to give out the degrees. The previous legislature actually made a small dent in Oregon’s historic underfunding of its higher education system. “When the last budget passed, I felt strange,” recalls Portland State president Wim Wievel, in his ninth and final year on the job, “because I didn’t have to cut our budget.”

This year will likely be different. With proposed spending for the universities flat from the last legislature, and costs increased, Wiewel sees a $20 million shortfall in the PSU budget. His plan is to fill it with $9 million in cuts – larger classes, fewer choices for students, fewer counselors – and $11 million in tuition increases, part of a pattern set other universities, including the University of Oregon’s proposed 10.8 percent tuition increase. Double-digit increases, worked out by the universities new institutional boards of trustees, have drawn the concern of Gov. Kate Brown, although her alternative seems to be for the universities to find ways to cut more deeply.

Coming off of Portland State’s recent day at the Capitol – a regular practice of the universities, with administrators, students, alumni and now trustees coming to make their case to the legislators – Wiewel received, as usual, “a lot of verbal support.” He explains that sometimes the interest in higher education can actually be overpowering: “In the absence of money, there can be micromanaging, telling you what to do with the money they’re not giving you.”

The legislature clearly faces major financial problems, with a state budget shortfall estimated at $1.6 billion – driven by rising Medicaid and PERS costs – before dealing with any of the shortcomings in Oregon’s elevated aspirations. Few proposals for new revenue, all politically challenging in themselves, even cover the existing hole in the budget. Monday is expected to bring a proposed no-new-revenue, all-cuts budget that one legislator forecast would be “hair-raising.”

But Oregon’s grim fiscal realities, and its limited interest in overcoming them, have not been set against our soaring aspirations. Oregonians have declined once more to confront the contradiction, but it’s not about to go away.

Wiewel strongly supports the goal of 40-40-20, but is uncertain about the strategy.

“Forty-forty-twenty has been a vision without a plan,” he says. “A vision without a plan is a daydream.”

Although Oregon has preferred to say “aspiration.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/16/17.