Chalkboard Project unveils legislative agenda

    Smaller class sizes, more reading tutors and expanded teacher training programs were among the priorities the nonpartisan Chalkboard Project advocated Tuesday as it issued its long-awaited agenda for the 2007 Oregon Legislature.

    The group, which is backed by a bevy of influential Oregon foundations, has been researching both the state’s school funding structure and education reforms since 2004, and was criticized for not coming out with recommendations in time for the 2005 legislative session.

    Now Chalkboard Project has issued a carefully edited list of priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. The group’s goals include:

    - Lowering class sizes to 15 students in kindergarten and first grade, which they say would cost $107 million a year when fully implemented.

    - Providing reading tutors for all students not reading at grade level in kindergarten through third grade, at an estimated eventual cost of $51 million a year.

    - Providing three years of mentoring for new teachers and administrators, and expanded teacher training opportunities, at an eventual cost of $14.9 million a year.

    Doubling the size of the state’s rainy-day fund for education, and giving schools a guaranteed level of state spending per student.

    The group says none of these proposals would need tax increases, in the short term, to be funded, but could be paid for under school funding plans like those proposed by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village), which would set aside predetermined percentages of the state budget for schools.

    Chalkboard is also proposing measures that it says would help schools spend their money more efficiently, and save more than $100 million by 2014. Those include a restructuring of the state’s transportation funding formula, encouraging districts to participate in health insurance pools and providing financial incentives for districts that meet health spending goals set by the state.

    Left out is any proposal for a larger overhaul of Oregon’s school funding system. Though schools get half of the state budget, their funding is slashed when income tax revenues decline, as they did during the 2001-2003 recession.

    Sue Hildick, Chalkboard’s executive director, said the goal was to focus on proven reforms that she said could make an immediate impact in the state’s 198 public school districts.

    "We are more than political fodder in this election cycle," she said. "Reform must accompany any funding increases – anything else is status quo."

    State Rep. Linda Flores (R-Clackamas), who chaired the House Education Committee in 2005, said she expects Chalkboard to be a "significant" player in the upcoming session, and praised the group’s proposals calling for more efficiencies in school spending.

    But she was more lukewarm about the group’s call for eliminating the corporate kicker tax refund, expected to total about $200 million, and putting that money toward a rainy-day fund for schools, saying the idea needs more research.