This is Part Five of a five-part series looking at the new Editorial Page Editor of the Oregonian.
Upset about budget cuts that are devastating Oregon’s local schools? Don’t expect much help from the new head of the Oregonian Editorial Board, Erik Lukens.
While Lukens was at the helm of the Bend Bulletin’s Editorial Board, the paper published opinions about school funding and its advocates that ranged from indifferent to outright hostile.
Is that what we can now expect from the Oregonian?
The dramatic increase in budget cuts to K-12 schools over the past two years (piled on top of two decades of ongoing cuts) has sparked an emergence of frustrated parents, students, teachers and community members who are organizing to make a difference.
Portland-area groups like UPSET, Invest in Oregon Kids, Oregon SOS, and others have joined new and existing groups around the state calling on legislators to do something about our state’s school funding crisis. Ask anyone involved in our schools, and you’ll hear the same story: There’s a sense of anger, frustration, and motivation among people who care about our schools that hasn’t been felt in some time.
If past is prologue, these advocates won’t find an ally in Erik Lukens.
In response to an October 2009 report showing that Oregon has the second highest student-per-teacher ratio in the country, the Bulletin ran an editorial blaring the headline “Don’t Feel Guilty About Class Size.”
The Editorial board wanted to make sure that none of their readers were influenced by the dismal class size report when they were deciding how to vote on Measures 66 and 67.
Because high student-teacher ratios translate into large classes, and because large class size has become a politically potent issue, you can be sure tax-hike supporters are licking their chops...
As the January tax-hike vote approaches, Oregonians will be encouraged to consider the state’s large classes a consequence of misplaced priorities on a grand scale. Funding problems will be blamed on the state’s tax structure. They’ll be blamed on the initiative system. They’ll be blamed on taxpayers themselves, who, presumably, are just too cheap to support schools adequately. If tax-hike supporters thought it might help their cause, they’d probably blame Oregon’s student-teacher ratio on global warming, too.
Whatever the underlying problems might be, voters will be urged to make up for them by raising taxes on other people — namely businesses and the wealthy. And to oppose the tax hikes, of course, will be to embrace the disgrace that is Oregon’s class-size ranking. For which, naturally, cheapskate voters should be deeply, deeply ashamed.
The very next day, Lukens’ paper argued that smaller class sizes don’t make a difference in the quality of a student’s education unless they’re accompanied by a teacher merit pay system based on test results.
This ignores completely the large body of research showing that smaller class sizes—especially in early grades—have a significant impact on student achievement, not to mention plenty of anecdotal evidence from local classrooms about the impact of individual instruction between teachers and students.
Why would Lukens let facts about class sizes get in the way of a political, anti-teacher rant?
With Lukens and the Bend Bulletin, a policy disagreement isn’t just a policy disagreement--it’s an opportunity to hurl insults at those they disagree with. When a group of school districts and supporters filed a lawsuit to require the state legislature to adequately fund K-12 schools, the editorial board called them “a litigious mob composed largely of public school districts” and “the more-money crowd.”
After belittling their legal and political argument, the Bulletin said of these school supporters, “They should be embarrassed.”
One area of education where the Lukens and the Bulletin offer their full-throated support, however, is online charter schools, in particular Oregon Connections Academy, part of a national chain of schools under the for-profit Connections Academy corporation.
Nothing scares the bureaucratic, special-interest clogged, education establishment like school choice. Oregon’s state Board of Education didn’t exactly run away screaming when it got two applications for online charter schools. But it did reject them on Thursday.
Board members are also concerned about the quality of the online public schools. That could be another reason to keep new ones small.
It would be, except Connections Academy has not floundered academically.
Actual Fact: Oregon Connections Academy has a graduation rate of about 30%, one of the worst records in the whole state. The reason public school officials and advocates are wary of corporate enterprises like Connections Academy is because they have such dismal track records. It would be reckless and irresponsible for officials to open the gates to these untested, unaccountable online schools without putting in place rigid safeguards.
Despite its dismal record, Oregon Connections Academy enjoys a great deal political protection in Oregon due to its close ties to Republican leaders--in particular, Rep. Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville), who is a paid employee of Oregon Connections Academy and the Republican Co-Chair of the House Education Committee.
Bottom Line: In his time at the Bend Bulletin, Erik Lukens was dismissive and hostile to the real concerns of parents and teachers, instead pushing a failing experiment in school privatization putting out-of-state corporate profits ahead of students.