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Oregon schools need your voice and your commitment

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Charlie Walker is the former president of Linfield College and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Chalkboard Project.)

There are few topics that promote as much emotional discussion as educating our children. Schools are the lifeblood of our communities, and the children they educate represent our future. So schools and kids are topics we take pretty seriously.

Oregon's K-12 schools are clearly at a crossroads. The good news: We are raising the performance bar for students, and more students are rising to the challenge. But there are many warning signs that we have reached the limits of what our schools can achieve without some major changes.

Oregon is falling nationally in key achievement measures, such as reading proficiency. The dropout rate remains high. We have one of the five largest average class sizes in the nation. Forty percent of new teachers quit before they've completed five years on the job.

Whether you believe our schools need more money or could spend the money they already have more wisely, hundreds of thousands of children are being caught in the crossfire of adults' inability to agree on some common sense steps to improve our schools.

Here at the Chalkboard Project, we're trying to build statewide agreement on those steps. We're a different kind of organization. We're parents, grandparents and community members whose only agenda is to help make our schools better. And we're listeners. We've touched about 50,000 Oregonians in a two-year effort to reach out and really hear what citizens want.

Last summer, we invited some of the state's best thinkers to join two unique working groups. One group was made up of teachers, administrators and others with a working knowledge of our education system. Its task was to look at improving the quality of our educators.

The second group consisted of finance and economic experts, most of them from outside the education world. That group tackled school accountability and finance issues.

The two groups spent six months creating a road map that will eventually give Oregonians what they have told Chalkboard they want: one of the best K-12 school systems in the country.

The 65 recommendations these groups provided show the tough choices we need to make and the priorities we need to set to reach that ultimate goal.

Chalkboard has taken those dozens of recommendations, as well as the results of two years of other extensive research, and proposed a handful of ideas that, taken together, have the most potential to improve our schools in both the short and long term. From increasing classroom support for teachers to auditing school spending to using the income tax 'kicker' to build a strong rainy-day fund, 13 options are on the table.

You can't sum up these ideas in a single flashy headline. There is no quick fix to what ails our schools. Rather, these proposals show the hard work required over time on a number of fronts to increase student achievement in Oregon.

Here are a few of our ideas:

n Boost quality by focusing on teachers and on student reading. We need excellent teachers to improve student achievement. Teachers need great mentors and more opportunities for better ongoing training. But let's link extra support for teachers to results. Chalkboard likes the idea of awards that compensate teachers and staff for great performance, not years on the job.

If students can't read by fourth grade, their life prospects dim substantially. There are two great research-proven ways to help early readers: lower kindergarten and first-grade class sizes to 15 students, and provide a tutor to every K-3 student who's not reading at grade level.

n Increase the accountability of schools to taxpayers. Create a visible statewide program that shows Oregonians where their education money goes, and demonstrate where schools are actively working to save money.

n Stabilize school funding. We need to save money during the good times to support our schools when the economy nosedives. Our schools need a solid foundation they can count on in good times and in bad. How about redirecting the personal and corporate income tax 'kicker' to fill that emergency fund?

Funding schools shouldn't be about a single number, such as $5.8 billion. Let's establish a guaranteed, per-student state funding level - a 'floor' of spending per student that will rise based on inflation and other cost factors and never be reduced. This is critical to ensure school funding stability.

Chalkboard was created to be the voice of Oregonians. We've done the research about what will work to improve schools, and we've also listened hard to what citizens want. Before we move forward to put our ideas into action, we need to know if our choices reflect your priorities.

Let's change the conversation. What kind of a common path can we agree on to improve our schools and break the stalemate that is preventing constructive change and putting our children's futures at risk?

Make your voice heard. Visit www.chalkboardproject.org or call 1-877-YOUR-K12 and weigh in.