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Budget Cuts, Teacher Objections Stymie Ore. Reform

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A 1991 Oregon school-reform law that has drawn national attention for its attempts to link education with economic needs is running up against the state's burgeoning fiscal crisis.

The most recent sign of the obstacles facing implementation of the reform program was the announcement last week by the state's largest teachers' union that it would push to delay two of the measure's key provisions and repeal a third.

The 1991 law, which has been widely cited as a model for state-level education reform, seeks to bring about a major overhaul in the ways in which schools prepare youths to meet the demands of the workplace. Among other provisions, it includes a plan to replace traditional graduation requirements with certificates of "initial mastery'' and "advanced mastery.''

But approval of the law by the legislature came less than a year after state voters had ordered an equally fundamental change in the state's school-finance system. Known as Measure 5, the initiative limited property taxes and required the state to reimburse school districts for lost revenues during a five-year phase-in period.

As a result, the state is expected to have to restore some $1.2 billion in lost district revenues in its upcoming biennial budget. But there is nothing in the initiative to prevent the state from making countervailing cuts in the $1 billion in aid it already provides to districts from the general fund.

Indeed, legislators last week tentatively agreed on a fiscal plan that could result in an overall 11 percent cut in district budgets in the 1993-94 school year.

The funding situation is so dire that some education groups are backing the politically difficult step of creating a state sales tax to stabilize school budgets and finance implementation of reform law. The state school boards association last week called for a 5 percent sales tax dedicated to education, with exemptions for food and other household essentials.

The association estimated the tax would produce $583 million in new revenues during the 1994-95 academic year and about $1 billion annually for the following two years.

'An Instant Leader'

The Oregon reform act has been described as the most comprehensive response to a 1990 report by the National Center on Education and the Economy entitled "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.'' (See Education Week, June 10, 1992.)

"The speed with which the act was passed and the comprehensiveness of it made Oregon an instant leader, [by] translating the ideas in the 'America's Choice' report into a thoughtful plan for state action,'' said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the center.

Beginning in 1997, the law will require students to earn the "certificate of initial mastery'' by age 16 or after 10th grade, which would confirm their competency in core academic skills. After completing that phase, students would then work toward the advanced certificate in one of two tracks--either in a two- to five-year technical-training and apprenticeship program or a two-year college-preparatory curriculum.

The Oregon Education Association, which expressed reservations about the idea from the start, last week urged that implementation of the two certificates be delayed. In addition, union officials called for eliminating a plan to gradually extend the school year from its current length of 175 days to 220 days by 2010.

The O.E.A. also called for greater representation by secondary school and community-college educators on the state's Workforce Quality Council, a group made up mostly of business and labor leaders that is charged with creating a comprehensive strategy for developing a highly educated workforce.

Teachers' union leaders have argued that the certificates would create an artificial stopping point that would encourage some students to drop out after 10th grade. They also charge that the plan discriminates against rural and low-income students, who they say would have less access to the community-college classes and apprenticeships that are critical elements of the technical track.

But Robert G. Crumpton, the union's executive secretary, emphasized that the O.E.A. favors the other parts of the reform act, which also calls for fully funding early-childhood programs by 1998, encourages the creation of ungraded primary schools, and mandates the development of performance-based assessments in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10.

In addition, the act recommends giving teachers and parents a greater voice in school decisionmaking, encourages the development of public school choice plans at the district level, and institutes a state "report card'' system to evaluate the performance of individual schools.

'Full Steam Ahead'

State officials insist the reform program is feasible in the current fiscal situation.

Plans for implementing the act are proceeding "full steam ahead,'' said Superintendent of Public Instruction Norma S. Paulus, adding that many of the act's initial phases can be implemented by reconfiguring how existing dollars are spent.

"We are also asking school districts to anticipate a shortfall and reconfigure their workforce and refocus around [the act] and then come to us with their plans,'' Ms. Paulus said, "and we can waive administrative rules that could free up'' how they use available resources.

The major expenditures presently needed to get the act off the ground are for staff development, Ms. Paulus said, for which she has recommended up to $8 million in the new budget.

Marilynne T. Keyser, the senior policy adviser on workforce development and education to Gov. Barbara Roberts, agreed that the early phases of the law could be put into place without full funding for schools.

But, she added, "It doesn't mean it's going to be easy or that it's not going to be a burden on schools, because it is.''

Ms. Keyser pointed out that the Governor has allocated $14.8 million from lottery funds to support staff development, student assessment, and other programs related to the act.

Seeking Replacement Funding

Meanwhile, "everybody is trying really hard to come up with a replacement-funding plan for the schools,'' observed Eileen B. Goldsmith, a legislative assistant to Sen. Catherine Webber, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, "The state's budget can't handle it as general fund.''

Many observers say, however, that voters are currently unlikely to approve new taxes to support schools.

"You're asking people who just voted that they want tax reductions to come forward and start a new tax for something they're not real pleased with,'' said Julie Brandis, a legislative assistant for Associated Oregon Industries, a business and industry coalition.

Before business leaders will back more taxes for schools, Ms. Brandis said, they want to see a stronger curriculum, greater parental involvement, and better accountability.

Vera Katz, the former state representative who sponsored the reform law and currently serves as mayor of Portland, agreed. "Until the public feels the legislature has responded to Measure 5, they are not prepared to increase funds or create additional revenues,'' she said.

'Devastating' Cuts Foreseen

A few years from now, Ms. Keyser warned, the situation will be more problematic without new revenues. "Further down the road I think it's much more troublesome if we don't solve our revenue problem for '95-'97,'' she said. "It will have a much more serious impact on reform.''

Current projections are that the state's general fund will have to replace $2.5 billion in property-tax revenues during the 1995-97 biennium.

"There's no way to protect schools from these cuts,'' Ms. Keyser said. "When you start making cuts of the magnitude we would certainly experience without new revenues, the whole capacity of the system to deliver education would be devastated.''

Ms. Keyser said she does not expect the legislature to approve a major tax-restructuring plan anytime soon. "Our sense is there isn't a readiness on the part of the legislature to embrace tax reform this session,'' she said.

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