School districts parcel out $260M from state fund


To the victors belong the spoils, or so the saying goes. And Oregon's 197 school districts were clear victors in the 2007 legislative session, with the K-12 education budget up a whopping 18 percent, to $6.2 billion.

But some of that money came with strings attached. Lawmakers set aside $260 million of it in a special "school improvement fund." Districts were told they could only use the money for certain programs, and that they'd have to show tangible results.

The Associated Press reviewed new plans for 50 school districts across Oregon, including the state's largest districts, to get an idea of how the money will be spent.

The review, which covered about $90 million of the $130 million the state will dole out this year, showed that the bulk of the money will go to two areas: Reducing class sizes in the elementary grades, and remedial or alternative learning programs.

The two areas will consume about one-third of the available funding, according to the AP's analysis. Most of that money will go to teacher salaries and benefits.

Large class sizes have been a persistent issue in Oregon. It's a problem both for high-growth districts and in districts that have been forced to cut their staff because of falling enrollment, leading them to consolidate classrooms.

Oregon has the second-biggest elementary school class sizes in the nation, behind only Utah, according to data from the 2003-2004 school year that was compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Remedial courses have also been a hot topic statewide, given that the Department of Education estimates that a full 40 percent of Oregon graduates have to take one or more remedial courses in college, a potential waste of tuition dollars.

Spending on the other priorities allowed by the school improvement fund levels off considerably after the top two areas, according to the AP's analysis.

Another third of the spending is split between programs aimed at closing the gap in test scores between white students and their minority counterparts, reading programs and early childhood education.

On the other end of the spectrum, few districts in the AP's sample chose to spend their money on vocational education, or increasing class time, via summer programs or after-school tutoring.

The school improvement fund is not a new idea. Oregon had a similar program in place in the early 2000s, but the money dried up as soon as the state went into recession.

School officials said they were well aware as they apportioned the first phase of the grant funding that it could evaporate, if the state's economy goes south again.

"There is no question that it's in all of our minds," said Julie York, director of student services in the Medford school district. "It would be very difficult, two years from now, if that money isn't there."

The $260 million fund didn't move through the legislature without controversy. The Chalkboard Project, an influential education reform group, had pushed for requiring districts to pick from a much narrower range of programs, including early childhood education, early literacy and teacher mentoring.

Those areas, Chalkboard said, would give districts, and taxpayers, the most proven bang for the buck.

And some lawmakers, including the powerful co-chairs of the state budget committee, had proposed making schools apply for the money, instead of receiving an automatic, per-pupil payout.

Both ideas encountered serious pushback from superintendents, teachers and school boards, who argued that every school had coped with the cutbacks of 2002 and 2003 differently, and should be allowed to chose their own path forward.

In the end, all districts were guaranteed a share of the fund, and given 10 program areas from which to pick.

In their grant applications to the Oregon Department of Education, all districts had to list the results they hope to achieve because of the targeted spending, and tell the state how they'll track their progress &

by improving test scores, for example, or by lowering their dropout rate.

The question now is how quickly they'll be able to show results, for a legislature that's keen on seeing if their investment pays off. Usually, districts try to gather a critical mass of data, perhaps five years' worth, before determining whether a program is working.

"I think it is going to be very hard (to track) when it is year-to-year funding," said Sue Hildick, who heads the Chalkboard Project.

To better track progress, a handful of districts chose to concentrate the money in just one or two areas. In Newberg, for example, the entire $1.06 million allocation went to reading programs designed to close the achievement gap, said curriculum director Terry McElligott.

" concentrating the money, and our efforts, it might be a little easier for us to say, 'Yes, it helped,' or 'No, it didn't,'" she said.

Other districts spread the money around program areas, but planned to build on promising, pre-existing programs.

"The hope is that we will see significant changes in the schools that we have been able to add additional money to," said York, from the Medford district, which spread its $2.6 million grant among seven areas.

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