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How do we take our schools to next level?

Oregon schools are average. If they were being graded as a group, they'd get about a 'C.' That's far from good enough, and Oregonians agree: They want our schools to be among the best in the country. But they've also made one thing very clear: Money is not the answer to improving schools. It's how you spend the money that counts. That's the challenge and opportunity facing our legislators right now.

Plenty of statistics - dropout and graduation rates, new teacher attrition rates, student performance on national reading and math tests - show Oregon's education system is struggling to help our children succeed.

Parents see their children in increasingly crowded classrooms with teachers who are often overwhelmed. Employers see the struggles many high school graduates have with basic skills. And taxpayers question whether their investment in schools is being put to maximum use.

Chalkboard has gotten to the heart of what we need to do to make our schools among the best in the nation. Over three years, we've acquired a wealth of knowledge about how Oregonians want to improve our schools, as well as 'best practices' proven to raise student achievement.

Money is limited, so we must set priorities - where can we target dollars to get the greatest lasting results?

Chalkboard has looked at every other state, and even at other nations, to find out where investments truly paid off. And we verified two key facts:

Money invested in early learning has the greatest long-term impact. The first few years of school set the stage for a child's life. Two proven steps we can take to make sure all children get off to a good academic start: Reduce kindergarten and first grade class sizes to 15 students, and provide every K-3 child reading below grade level with individualized reading support.

Focused support for teachers leads to higher student achievement at every grade level. Again, two key steps we can take: Provide each new teacher and principal with a mentor, and provide all educators with much more focused, ongoing professional development that connects with the student achievement challenges they face in their classrooms.

Our schools also must do more to show Oregonians they are serious about trying to save money. Why do we spend more than most states on our school business operations? Let's assemble financial 'best practices,' share them with districts and monitor results to save money. Why do we spend more than our West Coast neighbors to transport students? Let's take a look at our funding formula and develop an equitable, more cost-effective way to provide that service.

Finally, we need a school funding structure that provides our schools with a consistent level of support. That requires a much larger rainy day fund, and a spending guarantee tied to the number of students in our schools, not to an arbitrary state revenue number.

These are all practical suggestions, backed by solid research and public will.

But moving this agenda forward in Salem is not easy. Entrenched interests weigh in. Forces to prevent change, no matter how worthwhile, have great power.

This is a critical legislative session for our schools. How easy it would be for legislators to bow to special interests and just feed more money into a 'status quo' system, and what a huge disservice to our children that would be. Let's not waste this opportunity to show Oregonians we're serious about improving our schools. Let's invest money in some very strategic ways that will get verifiable results. That's what Oregonians want. That's what a half-million children in our schools deserve. And that's the only way to move our schools from 'C' to 'A.'

Sue Hildick is president of the Chalkboard Project and its parent organization, Foundations for a Better Oregon