The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Editorial: Fifth-year reprieve opportunity to solve problems


April 21, 2015

Politics can be a harsh business and some of the folks in Salem aren’t really our friends, no matter what they say.

Or are they?

As we briefly report in our story about our local legislators beginning on page 1 of today’s issue, lawmakers in the capitol failed to take action on a bill that would have killed something that has been a big plus for Sweet Home: our fifth-year high school program.

This issue, which came close to boiling over last week, highlighted some of the biggest issues in Oregon politics.

On one hand, it demonstrates the disconnect between the state’s urban populations and its rural residents, which isn’t news. It’s too bad this keeps coming up, and it’s also too bad that our local legislators have to feel like they are constantly playing defense – constantly battling things that urban legislators think are good for all of us.

But that’s the nature of the beast.

What happened in this case was that urban school districts who haven’t taken advantage of the “fifth year” opportunity protested to their legislators that others – particularly rural districts – were using state money to pay for college for students who qualified to graduate but deferred receiving their diplomas.

Sweet Home has been doing this for three years and, at the beginning of this school year, had some 70 students attending Linn-Benton Community College for free through its Access College Today program. The arrangement allows teens who have completed their high school requirements to delay getting a diploma. They are still technically enrolled in high school while they take college courses.

The district benefits because it can collect state school funds. The young people benefit because they get some college credits for free, hopefully enough to get them off to a running start toward a degree and, potentially, greatly enhanced employment opportunities down the road.

We’re not the only ones taking advantage of this. The Democrat-Herald reported recently that schools in Lebanon, Scio, Albany, Central Linn, and Corvallis all have similar programs.

Basically, what’s happened this year in Salem was that politicians from the Portland area, responding to protests from larger school districts that haven’t implemented such programs, introduced legislation to put the kibosh on the fifth-year plans. They say the fifth-year programs siphon off money that should go to younger students.

One response, of course, is what we just hinted at: What we’ve got here are richer school districts sticking it to poor-but-creative communities such as Sweet Home that rank among the lowest-funded districts in the state.

If we were not to put too soft a touch on it, we could suggerst that sounds a lot like class discrimination.

Rural communities have taken it in the shorts from the cities in areas such policy areas as water rights, land use, forestry policy, fish, wildlife – just about every facet of life where urban culture differs from ours. The city folks don’t care. They live in their own world.

Having said that, though, we acknowledge that they have a point that needs to be considered: Not everyone can participate in this fifth-year strategy because it’s not financially sustainable. That’s one of the beefs voiced by the opponents: It’s unfair.

OK, we admit it: It is. But rural communities are the beneficiaries.

The fact is, though, this is a matter of principle. On this page we often lambast our government for deficit spending that ultimately increases our tax burden. We critique Obamacare and other public health strategies as unsustainable. We call for responsibility and sound financial strategy in distribution of aid to the indigent, retirees, etc.

All these are based, in some sense, on the principle that you can’t spend money you don’t have. Well, the critics are right. If more school districts “participate” in the fifth-year plan, the costs will spiral far beyond what the state can afford.

The solution is either to kill it, as the Portland politicians apparently want to do, or modify the rules.

We don’t doubt that some well-off families have taken advantage of this opportunity, but the ones who really benefit – and should – are young people who have less hope, financially or otherwise, of higher education unless they are incredibly creative and persistent.

The fifth-year program offers a step up for those who don’t possess exceptional drive, who might not scale the wall or swim the river but who likely would prove to be very solid citizens with a little help.

The fact that the bill to kill this thing has died in committee this time around gives everybody some time to talk this out, now that it’s on the table.

We suggest that we look at options that would allow those who truly need this kind of help to continue getting it – if sufficient funding is there.

A kid whose single mother cleans houses for minimum wage and who has had no family members ever graduate from college, but is eager to be the first to do so, in our minds should be more eligible for funding than another teen whose parents are both white-collar professionals raking in $100,000-plus a year.

The fifth-year plan is, in many ways, a great idea. We think the problems can be overcome.

We can start by eliminating the loophole approach and codifying this into an arrangement in which deserving, needy youngsters can make something of themselves, with a little help from their high school.


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