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Grass roots not evident in initiatives

What little confidence we had left in Oregon's initiative system has been severely undermined this year.

The initiative process - with very rare exception - is no longer a grass-roots movement that gives ordinary Oregonians the ability to bring about needed changes. Instead, it's been taken over by big money or by single-minded special interest initiators who make a living from proposing ballot measures and raising money to support them.

The 'citizen' initiatives on the November 2008 ballot only serve to deepen our concerns. Of the eight initiatives, just one is brought to the ballot by someone other than serial petitioners Bill Sizemore or Kevin Mannix. And that particular measure - the open primary initiative - happens to be the one worthy of voter support.

Sizemore's five measures, by contrast, are mostly extensions of his previous crusade to hamstring public employee unions or give tax breaks to the affluent. And Mannix's measures, while they at least address legitimate public issues, are equally misguided.

Following is our take on three Sizemore initiatives on the ballot. Next week, we will examine the other five initiatives for 2008.

Measure 58 - English language learners:

This measure would seem to be an attack on illegal immigration and therefore stands a reasonable chance of passing. But what the measure actually would do is limit the ability of non-English-speaking children to do well in school.

With this proposal, Sizemore is exploiting a common misunderstanding about how children whose first language is not English are taught in Oregon's public schools. The measure prohibits teaching public school students in a language other than English for more than two years.

That stated objective may have a surface appeal, but here's the reality: Nearly all (more than 85 percent) of Oregon's immigrant students already are taught in English. Sizemore's measure would complicate a system that's working to move children from their native tongue to English as quickly as possible. Plus, the measure will cost the state up to $250 million at a time when it is likely to be short of money anyway.

Measure 59 - Full deductibility of federal taxes:

This is a repeat attempt from Sizemore to allow Oregon taxpayers to deduct more of their federal taxes from their state income taxes. There are two problems with this idea: Only about 25 percent of Oregonians would save any money from this change. But the measure would cost the state more than $1 billion in revenue in the coming biennium.

That money would have to come from such needed programs as schools, prisons and social services. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries would be people earning more than $200,000 per year. If most Oregonians take time to study the ramifications of this measure and understand how it affects them personally, they will vote 'no.'

Measure 60 - Pay teachers by performance:

Another Sizemore initiative, Measure 60 offers a vague requirement that teacher pay raises must be based on 'classroom performance,' not seniority.

The measure doesn't say how performance will be graded, but the assumption is that it will be through standardized testing of students in all classrooms. If that's the case, teachers in affluent areas will get raises, and teachers who choose to work in more challenging districts - where test scores lag - will be deemed failures.

If you want to give all the teachers in the wealthiest communities a raise, this is your measure. If you care about all teachers and children in Portland Public Schools, you'll want to take a much closer look.