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Public funding is fundamental

A few days ago, my 5-year-old daughter, Ana, asked me why I have been so busy lately. I explained to her that I am trying to help out the schools. Her first question was, 'So that I can have teachers?'

Ana and other children should be excited about going to school and learning next year, not worrying about whether their schools will be closed or their teachers laid off.

As a community, we have to wonder what lesson we're teaching our children. Like readers of 'Doonesbury,' The New York Times, The Economist and other national media, our young people could conclude that Oregonians don't value their education.

They would be wrong. In public opinion surveys, Oregonians consistently rate quality public schools as one of their top concerns, right after jobs and the economy. The residents of Portland, in particular, have demonstrated their commitment to strong public schools at every turn.

But in the last decade, those opportunities have been limited. In the mid-1990s, property tax limitations and the state equalization formula began to reduce the dollars available for Portland's public schools, even as state-mandated costs continued to grow. At the same time, it severely limited our local ability to raise money for our local schools. Nonetheless, when the funding shortfalls threatened massive teacher layoffs in 1996, 30,000 people responded to the Portland Schools Foundation's call to 'March for Our Schools.' We saved more than 200 teaching positions. When budgets continued to fall short of Portland's needs, the voters of the city approved a $78 million local option measure in 2000.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of Portland's commitment to our schools is the vast majority of the city's middle-class parents who could go elsewhere but have chosen to stay and fight. Most residents of large cities across the county long ago lost their confidence in public education. But in Portland, we know that our schools do a good job with the limited resources they have. Student achievement in many of our schools is among the highest in the nation. Our strong public schools have always been part of what attracted businesses and top-notch employees to Portland.

Quality public schools bring communities together. They are the great equalizer in a society that still has too wide a gulf between those with advantages and those struggling to survive. Our public schools are where our children learn how to interact with kids who are different from them.

A strong public school system is inextricably linked to a strong economy. As Oregon's economy continues to founder, we face an essential choice: Do we back away from our commitment to a quality education for every child, or do we make the necessary investment that our schools require?

Reforming the way schools are funded statewide is a long-term proposition. The Legislature has made it clear that it won't lead us forward. The governor is waiting for what he calls 'a grass-roots movement' where 'the public will decide on its own that our schools need help.'

Our community has the opportunity to make that decision. Multnomah County leaders, Portland's mayor and City Council, our teachers, businesses and thousands of parents and students have come together to make sure our schools can provide the basics while we wait for stability in statewide funding.

Without temporary, local bridge financing at the city and county level, there is no backup plan. No amount of private fund raising can fill a $58 million budget hole. Everyone needs to play a part to make sure our school system gives every child in this city a great education and opportunities for the future. That means volunteering and contributing to fund-raisers, but first and foremost, we must ensure passage of the local funding measure.

Public funding for public schools is a cornerstone of our democracy. This local funding measure is about investing in our children, our economy and our community. Let our children look with wonder toward their future, instead of wondering if they will have one.

Gretchen Dursch is a consultant to nonprofits and a mother of two. She is active in the Northeast Community Child Development Center and excited about her daughter entering Portland Public Schools next year.