YOUR OPINION • Schools need funding overhaul

Opposing Views: Funding schools in an economic crisis
by: L.E. BASKOW, School buses line up for parking as thousands of students and adults convene on the Oregon state capitol steps for a February rally for K-12 education. There are wide-ranging views on how education funding needs to change during the economic crisis.

Oregon's school year is three weeks shorter than the national average and two months shorter than many of our economic competitors. And yet in the face of massive budget shortfalls, we're faced with chopping even more time off our school year.

But that's not our only problem.

Young people in Oregon today have less chance of graduating high school than their parents did. More than a quarter don't finish high school on time (40 percent in Portland Public Schools). This, at a time when 87 percent of new jobs created in Oregon require some post-secondary education.

We need fundamental changes both in how we fund our schools and in how we educate our young people. The economic crisis creates added urgency for us to do both.

There are three things the legislature can and must do right now to improve education in Oregon while strengthening the economy: shore up spending, fix our revenue system and invest in what works.

First, shore up state spending.

Schools are a primary economic engine in every community. ECONorthwest found that every $1 million decrease in K-12 eliminates 37.5 jobs (including 10.7 jobs not held by school employees) and decreases regional wages and business income by $1.29 million. That means the $167 million cut proposed for K-12 this year will multiply into more than $215 million lost to communities across the state. Protecting the K-12 budget is essential not just for our children's education, but for our economy too.

Second, fix our revenue system.

Last month, the state economist projected an $855 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, and a $3 billion gap for 2009-2011. Oregon's small reserve accounts and the federal stimulus package can cover $2.2 billion of that, leaving about $1.6 billion that will need to be raised through new revenue or cut from schools, health care, and public safety. How different would our situation be if instead of sending nearly $1.2 billion back in kicker checks in 2007 - checks that put only $285 in the average taxpayer's pocket - we had those funds available to cover critical needs today?

It's time for voters to rescue Oregon from this boom-and-bust cycle by reforming the kicker law so that the state - like each of us - can save during good times for bad times like these.

It's also time for the Legislature to update our antiquated tax policies. Individual taxpayers contribute 90 percent of the cost of schools, public safety and health care while most large corporations pay only the $10 minimum, which hasn't changed in nearly 80 years. Oregon taxes on beer and wine haven't gone up in decades, and the tobacco lobby spends millions every year to avoid tax increases to serve our citizens.

Third, we need to make sure the money we do have is spent to deliver the most benefit.

Every dollar spent on preschool, for example, saves $7 dollars in future social service and criminal justice spending. Right now, more than 116,000 Oregon children have no health coverage, which hurts their chance of success and drives up costs in expensive emergency room treatments. Expanding health coverage for children will bring millions of federal matching dollars to the state.

Finally, we need to do more to support quality teaching, which is the single most powerful driver of student success outside of the home environment.

We're spending $45 million a year on new teacher turnover, which largely stems from a lack of support. For less than one-third that amount - $15 million a year - we could provide a skilled mentor to every new teacher and principal in Oregon.

These are the kind of cost-effective investments that, along with shored-up spending and revenue reform, can help to move Oregon's schools forward, even during tough economic times.

Tom Olson is chairman of the Canby chapter of the education advocacy group Stand for Children, a grandparent of 12 and great-grandparent of 14. He is retired after 45 years as a public school teacher and administrator.