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Campaign targets grad rates

$800 per student would bankroll dropout prevention


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Carmen Rubio, executive director of the Latino Network of Oregon, and Tim Nesbitt, who is working with Stand for Children, are championing an initiative campaign to provide money for vocational education, dropout prevention programs. Book learning is not for everyone.

Career-technical education is the new term for an old idea: teach kids how to make or fix stuff.

And, advocates say, if you do, they are much more likely to be engaged in school, better prepared for college, and have lifelong access to better pay.

But career-technical education, often called CTE, also is expensive, requiring industrial equipment and advanced technology.

A coalition of education advocates is gearing up for a $3 million campaign to get an initiative on the ballot that would dedicate $800 for every Oregon high school student. In a bid to raise the state’s graduation rate, the money would be earmarked for CTE, dropout prevention strategies, and college-level courses in high schools.

“Too many of our kids are falling off a cliff after eighth grade,” said Latino Network of Oregon Executive Director Carmen Rubio, noting that Oregon kids have some of the highest test scores in the nation, but some of the lowest graduation rates.

Stand for Children Oregon, the Latino Network, the Coalition of Communities of Color and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski are behind the initiative petition campaign called Oregonians for High School Success.

Earmark or wise investment?

If the initiative gets enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, voters would decide if their plan is the right one.

The Initiative Petition 65 campaign would skim off an estimated 15 percent of the new revenues coming in during the next biennium for a total of $282 million, said Tim Nesbitt, the former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO labor federation, who currently is consulting on this campaign.

The money question already has generated criticism from one of the state’s biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union, that it would take away needed funding from other government services.

Bennett says that schools will need an additional $1 billion next biennium to maintain the same level of service — to cover inflation, raises and other costs that go up every year. “There’s more to it than: ‘There’s a surplus, let’s spend it on this, our favorite idea.’ “

Bennett says the pie isn’t getting larger; initiative advocates are just taking away local control from school boards to make allocation decisions.

“This is a closed system,” he said. “They’re not introducing new money.”

Nesbitt brushes off the criticism.

“There’s always tension about anything new when the conventional wisdom is ‘we don’t have enough to do what we’re doing now,’ “ Nesbitt said, arguing that, sometimes, “the new investments turn out to be the wisest.”

CTE students graduate more

Last year, Oregon recorded the highest dropout rate in more than a decade, at 4.26 percent. However, because the state’s methodology has changed over the years, it is difficult to compare historical data. The state’s data tops out at 7.4 percent in 1994-95 school year.

Many other students are failing out of high school.

The statewide completion rate — which allows for a fifth year of high school and other alternative graduates — was at 81.4 percent, meaning 18.6 percent simply didn’t make it.

But even when kids graduate high school, many are still not college-ready. A May 2015 study from the Education Northwest think tank found nearly three-fourths of recent high school graduates taking community college courses in Oregon had to pay for noncredit-bearing remedial courses.

This changes dramatically when CTE courses are added to the mix. Data from the Oregon Department of Education’s OregonCTE.com website shows that the four-year graduation rate for students who have earned at least one credit of CTE is 15.5 percentage points higher than the statewide average.

The difference is even more dramatic for populations that schools traditionally have a hard time connecting with. The graduation rate for black or African-American students who have taken CTE was 23.8 percentage points higher than the average for all black students; the rate for Native American students was 21.3 percentage points higher than their average.

Restoring pathways

The $800 per high school kid would be used at the district’s discretion in three program types: career-technical education, dropout prevention and college-level courses.

Nesbitt says that during the recession, many of these programs were considered “extras” and were cut.

“It seems like the time has come to restore and update all of these multiple pathways,” he said.

Rubio argues that superintendents across Oregon also have shifted focus to younger grades, kindergarten through eighth-grade. “It seems to us to be quite timely” to recalibrate the focus on high school, she said.

“High school is the last best chance for our kids,” Nesbitt said. “It’s not as if a high school dropout can’t recover, but it’s much harder.”