VOTE 2022: Governor candidates talk about reforms, relief for schools

Oregon’s schools have rarely occupied more focus in statewide races than in 2022.

After over a year of online schooling for most kids during the pandemic, the state’s first assessment data released in September showed grim results. Just 43.6% of students statewide tested proficient in language arts, a 9-point drop from pre-pandemic numbers. 

A May report from the Secretary of State’s audit division flagged substantial gap’s in the state’s systems for tracking how well schools educate students, noting that despite recent investments of hundreds of millions of dollars through the 2019 Student Success Act, “standards for K-12 schools lack clarity and enforceability, allowing low performance to persist.”

Oregon’s governor serves as the superintendent of public instruction, appointing leaders at the Department of Education, and is ultimately responsible for ensuring the state’s students are graduating prepared for life after high school. The next woman to hold the job will shape the education of a generation of Oregon students, particularly the 560,000 enrolled in the state’s public schools. She will face the daunting task of guiding the educational system’s recovery from pandemic losses, and navigating through an environment where education in public schools is increasingly politicized and polarized.

Here’s how the three candidates said they’d tackle the job.

Tina Kotek, Democrat

Oregon’s former House Speaker is running on her record of bringing additional funding to Oregon’s public schools while saying the governor needs to do more to track resulting outcomes. 

“I’m not going to let districts off the hook. As governor, I will have a proactive Department of Education,” she said.

She championed the 2019 Student Success Act, which earmarked about $1 billion a year for school programs to address educational disparities, reduce class size, add instructional time and address social and mental health issues facing students.

Though pandemic disruptions and online schooling have impeded progress, Kotek said absent that money, schools would have been worse off responding to the challenges of the past few years.

But she said the system’s current performance isn’t adequate, calling recent state test scores “unacceptable” during a Sept. 27 debate in Bend. She called the Secretary of State’s recent report on risks to the state’s K-12 education system a “roadmap” for issues she’d focus on as governor and said the Department of Education needs to do more to help struggling districts.

“I want them to be much more engaged in the districts to make sure we’re hitting those goals, because we made a promise to Oregonians that (the Student Success Act) was going to improve outcomes and I think this upcoming school year is our first real opportunity to see how that’s working,” she said.

She supported the 2021 bill suspending Oregon’s standardized testing requirements for graduation, saying the state is overdue for a look at whether its graduation requirements match what students and employers need.

“Oregon continues to have very rigorous graduation standards, absent any additional testing or essential skills. We have some of the most demanding high school diploma credit requirements in the country,” she said.

Kotek said Oregon’s curriculum standards are strong and sees sufficient avenues for parental involvement in the current system. She pointed to the requirement in the Student Success Act that districts involve parents and others in the community as they crafted sending plans.

“What I see is parents being very engaged in their kids’ education,” Kotek said.

She’s endorsed by the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union. Kotek said ensuring good working conditions for educators and a strong workforce is key to student success.

“I’m a product of public education. I believe in public education. And what the most important thing for me is, the students, the student experience, the students’ success. What’s best for them?” she said.

Kotek said she supports efforts to protect local school superintendents and school boards from what she sees as politically motivated attacks. She said it’s important local schools continue to teach accurate history and supports existing state standards.

“Most Oregonians just want schools to be able to function and do what they’ve been doing in terms of curriculum. I will protect our districts from distracting conversations,” she said.

Betsy Johnson, nonaffiliated

Oregon’s nonaffiliated candidate for governor says the state’s schools are too often failing to produce graduates who are ready for college or a career. 

Her approach would be transforming the Oregon Department of Education from an entity that mostly issues reports into one that meaningfully helps coach and hold local schools accountable for achieving better results. 

That wouldn’t necessarily mean replacing Colt Gill, the department’s head, on day one, but Johnson said she’d sit down with leadership, ask them to assess their shortcomings and use the Secretary of State’s report on the department’s shortcomings as a “punch list” to hold agency leadership accountable.

“ODE needs to help local schools, teachers and parents and not administer a sort of Salem driven nanny state,” she said. Reports on problems facing schools and districts should come with concrete action items and follow through, she said.

“Was that action taken? Did it correct the problem? Who are the beneficiaries? Is it measurable? And are local school boards, classroom teachers, and parents satisfied with the outcome?” she said.

She voted against a 2021 state law suspending a state graduation requirement to demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and math on standardized tests, saying the policy was misguided.

“I think kids ought to be able to read, write and do fundamental math before they get a high school diploma. Otherwise we’ve just turned high school performance into a participation certificate,” she said.

Aside from restoring those requirements, Johnson couldn’t point to specific standards she’d change, saying the state needs comprehensive data showing how much students fell behind during the pandemic to address those questions. 

Though Johnson voted for the Student Success Act, the 2019 law directing about $1 billion annually to local schools, she now says she regrets her vote because the law didn’t include enough measures to hold the state and districts accountable for results.

Johnson has taken a middle lane on many of the social and cultural issues debated in K-12 education and said she in general favors local decision making and control over a one-size-fits-all approach to every district in Oregon. 

She said it’s important schools teach history accurately and curriculum focuses on competency in core subjects like math, reading and writing.

Her campaign website notes she opposes “forc(ing) female athletes to compete against biological men in school sports,” referring to a policy from the Oregon School Activities Association allowing transgender students to play sports with the gender they live as. But Johnson said the issue should be up to local school boards to decide.

“Communities reflect their standards by voting for certain people to be on the school board. And as communities have gotten much more participatory with their school boards, I think they’re closer. I trust local districts,” she said.

Christine Drazan, Republican

(Editor’s note: Tina Kotek and Betsy Johnson agreed to be interviewed separately by the six reporters who contributed to this project. Christine Drazan only spoke with the Salem Reporter.)

Drazan has positioned herself as an advocate for parents in the governor’s race, saying she wants more parental involvement and transparency in curriculum, as well as higher standards for schools.

“We have chronic low-performing schools and parents need to be able to put their student in the best school that meets their needs,” she said, rather than being limited to their neighborhood school.

Drazan supports tax credits or deductions that would make it easier for families to pay for private schooling if that’s what they feel best serves their student. But she said that shouldn’t mean the state stops supporting public schools or funding them adequately so students enrolled can succeed.

“We have a constitutional obligation to provide a common system of schools and we must have strong public schools,” she said.

She’s won the endorsement of the Oregon Moms Union, a political action committee created in 2021 calling for more parent involvement in education and opposing Covid-related mandates.

Like Johnson, Drazan supports restoring the requirement that graduating seniors show proficiency on standardized tests measuring language and math skills, and voted against the 2021 bill to suspend the requirement.

Drazan said Oregon’s current standardized tests don’t provide useful real-time data showing how schools are performing, since students take the test in the spring with results released the following fall.

She supports more frequent testing that would allow parents to better monitor in real-time how schools are performing and make comparisons between schools and districts. Many districts do such testing internally, but Drazan said results should be comparable between schools and shared with parents in a way that’s easy for them to understand.

“Given the learning loss that we’ve seen over the Covid period, it’s extremely important that we adopt a regular ongoing approach when it comes to assessing where students are at throughout the school year,” she said.

Drazan said she’s best-qualified to make changes necessary in Oregon’s education system, saying Kotek and Johnson have for too long helped shape the current system failing Oregon students.

She is the sole candidate to vote against the 2019 Student Success Act. In 2021, she joined fellow Republicans and some Democrats in pushing to increase the state school fund to $9.6 billion, the amount recommended by districts and teacher unions, over the $9.3 billion a majority of legislative Democrats supported.

Drazan has also emphasized focusing schools on core subjects like reading, writing and math, saying curriculum needs to be “age appropriate” and that recent state updates have been overly focused on issues like gender and identity.

She opposes allowing transgender girls to compete in women’s sports at school and said parents should have more input into curriculum and the ability to view classroom lessons and materials easily.

“The function of schools should be to help students prepare for work, and not to help students process or what their identity is, and how they’re going to approach social justice issues,” she said.

This story is part of a newsroom collaboration for the governor’s race, with six newsrooms each tackling where Republican Christine Drazan, nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Democrat Tina Kotek, stand on a key topic. The Albany Herald-Democrat wrote about wildfires and drought; Ashland News covered health care, including mental health; the Mail Tribune wrote about abortion, the Oregon Capital Chronicle covered housing, Salem Reporter covered education and Yachats News wrote about the economy and cost of living.  

From left, Oregon governor candidates Tina Kotek, Betsy Johnson, Christine Drazen. (Campaign photos)

How they voted on education

HB 3427 (2019 regular session) passed

Established the Student Success Act, which invests $1 billion in education every year and is funded by a business tax.

Drazan — No

Johnson — Yes

Kotek — Yes

HB 4402 (2020 third special session) passed

Protected public and private schools from lawsuits related to Covid-19 infections as long as they are following “Covid-19 emergency rules” enacted by the state.

Drazan —  Yes

Johnson — Excused

Kotek — Yes

SB 744 (2021 regular session) passed

Directed a review of state requirements for high school diplomas and alternative certificates.

Drazan —  No

Johnson — No

Kotek — Yes

SB 554 (2021 regular session) passed

Authorized school districts to ban guns on school grounds.

Drazan — No

Johnson — No

Kotek — Yes

Alexis Weisend from the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon

This story is part of a newsroom collaboration for the governor’s race, with six newsrooms each tackling where Republican Christine Drazan, nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Democrat  Tina Kotek, stand on a key topic. The Albany Herald-Democrat wrote about wildfires and drought; Ashland News covered health care, including mental health; the Mail Tribune wrote about abortion, the Oregon Capital Chronicle covered housing, the Salem Reporter covered education and Yachats News wrote about the economy and cost of living.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.