Legislative watch: Committee on Student Success to tackle skills gap and funding for public schools

Students, legislators and businesses ask lawmakers to solve myriad problems facing K-12 education.


High school students, teachers, administrators and business owners urged the newly formed Committee on Student Success to address bullying, urban-rural inequities, the skills gap and a perennial lack of funding.

“Our schools have weathered wave after wave of education reform,” testified John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association. “Disrupted learning has reached a crisis point in most part of the state. Our children are hurting.”

Students told legislators that racism and homophobia nearly drove them out of school.

Kaylene Barry, Member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and a student at Willamina High School, said she faced racism, sexual harrasment and bullying every day. “There have been many barriers between myself and education,” she said. “I seldom saw a positive reward behind it all.”

“Every time we have a panel of kids before us, they always talk about racism in our schools,” said Rep. Carl Wilson (R-Grants Pass). “Unless we get that taken care of on a basic level, we’re going to have a hard time getting traction on anything else.”

Other students complained about not learning enough in class. 

“When you wake up you should look forward to learning something in class, which I am not even close to doing,” said Brian Flowers, a junior at Sheridan High School. “I believe the teacher shows up to babysit, not to actually teach.”

Rural Oregon schools lag behind their urban counterparts, said Stayton High School student Bradley Phelps. Stayton offers 4 AP classes, compared to Salem High School’s 12.

“We often feel ignored by the system,” Phelps said. “There is a sense of helplessness. We do not have the resources, the programs, the environment that city schools do. We do not get the same exposure to new experiences.”

Manufacturers and construction business representatives said an emphasis on college preparedness, not technical skills, has created a skills gap — and that they are desperate for qualified high school graduates. Miles Fiberglass has 11 openings that have gone unanswered for months; Boardman Foods has 30.

“We’ve had so many problems getting people who want to show up to work that it’s now our main focus,” said Lori Miles-Olund, president of Miles Fiberglass.

These jobs could provide a solid path to the middle-class. Greg Morrill, president of Bergerson Construction in Astoria, said his marine and civil construction firm pays $50K-$100,000K a year, plus benefits for most positions.


“We’ve had so many problems getting people who want to show up to work that it’s now our main focus,” said Lori Miles-Olund, president of Miles Fiberglass.


“When you speak of those salary ranges to students you get their attention,” he said. “You also get the attention of some of the teachers.”

Miles Fiberglass tried to bridge the gaps by starting a manufacturing charter school in Oregon City, where students learn trade skills and make carbon fibre skateboards and canoes. “We’ve hired many of these students after they graduated,” Miles-Olund said, “and they are some of our best and brightest employees.”

Administrators said they want to see schools prioritize STEM education, support arts and music education, shrink class sizes, provide personalized education plans and provide more mental health services, among other goals.

Legislators expressed enthusiasm for tackling the challenges but others were apprehensive about the enormity of the task. “This is a much more complex issue than some people seem to think it is,” said Sen Brian Boquist (R-Dallas).


“We’ve been mortgaging the futures of our young people by continuing to just talk about how to fund education,” said LeAnn Larson, President of the Oregon School Boards Association. “They are our future, and we owe them more than words.


If the committee can’t agree on solutions during this short 35-day session, progress may come in 2019.

Darin Drill, representing the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, said the organization has convened work groups of superintendents from across the state to develop policy proposals for the next session. Their top priorities include expanded STEM education, stronger partnerships between K-12 schools and preschools and better mental health support systems.

LeeAnn Larsen, President of the Oregon School Boards Association, said statewide polls showed most respondents would pay higher taxes to fund education.

Every governor since Mark Hatfield, she said, has called for a better way to pay for the state’s public schools. None have yet succeeded.

“We’ve been mortgaging the futures of our young people by continuing to just talk about how to fund education,” she said. “They are our future, and we owe them more than words.”

Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

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