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Gov's Education Outlook: Many Priorities, Not Enough Cash

PHOTO: Getting more 3- and 4-year-olds into preschool in Oregon, and more kids into full-day kindergarten, are among the education priorities in Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposal for the next biennium. Photo credit: kali9/iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: Getting more 3- and 4-year-olds into preschool in Oregon, and more kids into full-day kindergarten, are among the education priorities in Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposal for the next biennium. Photo credit: kali9/iStockphoto.com.
December 12, 2014

SALEM, Ore. - The state budget proposal from Gov. John Kitzhaber this week sets the tone for what looks to be months of tough decisions ahead in Salem.

In pre-session meetings the last couple of days, legislators heard some of the reasoning behind the budget line items, as well as public reactions.

Otto Schell, legislative director for the Oregon PTA, said a school funding increase of 0.6 percent just won't be enough, adding that he thinks it could mean cuts and layoffs - a familiar predicament for districts.

"We put a little bit of money in, we allow programs to be created, and then we kick the budget out from under 'em so there's no sustainability," he said. "That's the problem with setting the peg so low on a budget for K-12; you don't give stability to districts to budget for the kids."

Without a bigger investment, Schell said, he thinks it will be hard to improve on the state's low high-school graduation rates, and for districts to continue to recover from the recession.

The outlook is brighter for early learning and child care for working families; both get more money in the governor's budget proposal.

Dana Hepper, director of policy and programs for the Children's Institute, said she understands the concerns of K-through-12 advocates. However, she points out that at least 31,000 toddlers in Oregon from low-income families really could benefit from preschool - but aren't enrolled.

"If we can bring kids to school with all the skills that they need to thrive in kindergarten," she said, "the hope is that it leads to savings on special education and intensive supports. And so, we think the two things really complement each other."

Tonia Hunt, executive director of Children First for Oregon, said having to choose between funding early learning and K-through-12 diverts attention from the real issue, which is whether the state is doing enough to bring in income to meet its ambitious education priorities.

"We make decisions as a state all the time about where we will spend our resources, who we will give tax breaks to, and who we will charge for taxes," said Hunt. "And kids should be top priority as we make those decisions."

The budget proposal relies on freeing up some money by spending less on health care and prisons - savings that not everyone agrees can be counted on.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR