The bustle of a new school year brings outward signs of children being educated. School parking lots are full again, classrooms are bulging with bright young faces and teachers are diving into a new year with the optimism that only September can bring.
All of this activity may deceive people into thinking that it's business as usual for Portland-area schools. But what's less visible to the public is the long-term erosion that's occurring within Oregon public education.
These days, approximately three-quarters of Oregon households don't contain school-age children. Most Oregonians have little contact with public schools. They may see school buses on the road, but most don't see firsthand confirmation of overcrowded classrooms, staffing cutbacks and programs that have been eliminated.
Fewer teachers, bigger classes
While the evidence of budget reductions doesn't drift far beyond school walls, those cutbacks have accumulated over the past two years as districts took a deep financial plunge in 2009 and yet another budget hit in 2010.
Here are a few examples:
• In Portland Public Schools, the district is starting this year with 124 fewer employees than the past school year. Gresham-Barlow, which dropped more than 100 employees last year, cut another 18.5 positions this year. The Centennial district sliced another 25.5 licensed personnel, on top of reductions made the previous year.
• Programs that went away last year include many co-curricular activities that aren't coming back. Elementary school students throughout Multnomah County have fewer opportunities for music, physical education, athletics and library services.
• Class sizes are swelling in many Portland-area districts, and assistants are no longer around to help teachers carry the extra load.
This is hardly a complete tally of school cutbacks. And this hasn't been a situation where school districts were simply slowing their growth in spending - they actually have been required to cut millions of dollars below their previous levels of spending, in the same way that families or businesses have had to adjust to this recession.
Revenue still deteriorating
What's left are public schools filled with professionals who still want to deliver a quality education to all children, but who are limited in the staffing and tools available. Yet, for Oregon to compete in the international economy, this is a time when it needs to improve its education system, not step backward.
But simply maintaining - let alone improving - how we educate young Oregonians will be a steep challenge. Oregon's fiscal picture is getting worse, not better, as state revenues continue to fall below expectations. Federal help has eased the pain in the past two years, but this relief won't endure.
Meanwhile, districts such as Portland are spending down their reserves, and some districts have cut school days. Those, however, are only temporary options. More permanent solutions must come at the state level, where ideas for systemic reform must be fully explored, prioritized and adopted in short order.
The state needs more money, yes. But it also should force educational efficiency - including further consolidation of school districts if warranted. And state leaders must truly place the emphasis on education that they always promise when they are still candidates running for office.
Oregon will elect a new governor and a host of legislators in less than two months.
Voters should demand that these candidates state specifically how they will prioritize K-12 education against other state programs and exactly what they propose for reversing the losses in Oregon's public schools. More than ever, state leaders must establish - and meet - deadlines for correcting this educational collision course that will doom young Oregonians and the state as a whole.