In the middle of our nation’s major recession there are signs of an upturn here and there, but in the meantime, we are struggling to fund the most valuable piece of our future: Education. Unemployment is high, inflation is real and people are having trouble making ends meet. Simply put, there is less money to go around. So is it really any surprise that recent ballot measures asking Oregon taxpayers for even more money have failed? Where do Oregonians draw the line? To hopefully find an answer, I decided to take a look at our past.
As I reviewed Oregon’s ballot measures for the past 40 years, I noticed some not-so surprising patterns. Schools only asked for more taxpayer dollars during tough economic times. Schools suffer when people are making and taking home less money. Accordingly, during times of economic prosperity, Oregon would go years without a mention of educational funding on the ballot.
In general, voters have failed nearly every measure that proposed a tax hike to cover education costs. Since 1970, voters have failed at least 10 such ballot measures. Most recently last month, two local measures to fund education failed. Oregon City voters overwhelming turned down measure 3-376. It’s failure has forced the district to cut two school weeks from the 2010-2011 year in addition to numerous other deep cuts they have already made. Portlanders failed measure 26-121, which was earmarked for improving and repairing facilities.
I should note that voters have made some exceptions. Some measures have passed to keep schools open, keep class sizes down, and retain teacher jobs (Oregon Ballot Measure 2 in 1987; Oregon Ballot Measures 66 and 67 in 2010; and Portland Public School Measure 26-122 in 2011, respectively). But what did taxpayers really agree to? Measure 2 continued levies that were already in place; Measures 66 and 67 taxed businesses and the wealthiest Oregonians; and two other measures in the 1990’s allotted lottery funds for education. In most cases, the average citizen wasn’t giving up much.
What is obvious is that public perception is everything. Maybe if taxpayers felt that schools were doing a better job, they would be more willing to provide additional funding. Voters want higher graduation rates, smaller class sizes, equitable distribution of funds, a well-rounded curriculum, less standardized testing and increased transparency of where funding goes, to name a few. (Parents Across America, a non-partisan, non-profit grassroots organization, has a well thought out and detailed list of desires for our public education system here.) Also, many who vote against tax increases for education feel that schools are getting enough money, they just aren’t spending it wisely.
So where do we go from here? The answer is not simple. It never is. The educational system is huge and complicated. (Check out this interesting YouTube video that examines the history and future of public education in America: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U)
Do we need a complete overhaul? Some suggest that this is the only way to compete within the global economy. Despite this country’s amazing resources, the public education system is failing many of our nation’s children while other nations excel.
Should we give more control to the state government? Governor Kitzhaber is working on a Senate bill to reform public education in Oregon. The bill aims to streamline funding for early childhood through graduate school education by creating a 12-member board that would oversee educational operations and try to bring more efficiency to the system by linking funding to outcomes.
Should we go back to local control? Oregon’s infamous Ballot Measure 5 of 1990 was supposed to “even the playing field” and provide equitable funding to schools state-wide by putting local funding and control in the hands of the state. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to, and we still feel its effects over 20 years later.
What about more ballot measures? Beaverton plans to put one on the November 2011 ballot, and I’m sure they aren’t alone.
Do we need to look to individual school districts to better manage their funds? Are teachers and programs really the only thing left to cut?
Regardless of budget cuts, ballot measures, and public perceptions, there will always be children to educate. Things will probably get worse before they get better. State, local and district governments need to be re-structured, taxpayers will continue to fund schools, and teachers will continue to do more with less. These are realities that are as inevitable as the classroom full of children I greet with a smile each morning. If all of us could direct the focus to our children, it might make these tough decisions a little easier. They are, after all, our most precious commodity.