Local control is best for school funding
I believe the key step to move toward stable, excellent schools is to return to local control of school funding.
Through a variety of changes in state laws, funding decisions have moved from the purview of residents of a school district to the state Legislature, significantly increasing the difficulty of decision making while taking away power from local activists. Decisions are more complex because they require a statewide consensus, not just that of a single community; decisions are by elected officials, not residents; and schools must compete with all other state services for funding from a single pool of money, not a stand-alone tax.
Some of these steps were taken to equalize funding across wealthy and poor districts in Oregon. Equalization is a good goal, but the current solution destroys much in its quest to better balance funding.
My proposal is to return the decision about school tax levies to the residents of each school district. These tax levies would be exclusively for the use of schools. To provide equalization across the state, I propose equalizing the tax base per student across the state, rather than equalizing the spending per student. This would mean that in all communities in the state, any funding decision would use the same basis for taxation (taxable income per student for an income tax or property value per student for a property tax).
This makes the 'pain level' for supporting schools the same for all communities (the wealthier metro area communities would continue to subsidize struggling logging towns). But different communities would still be free to make different decisions about how much pain they are willing to accept to educate their children. The spending per student could be very different in different districts with different values.
With local control would come renewed energy to solve the more simple and direct problems that each community faces in terms of educating its children. For Portland, I believe the result would be a return to excellence in educating all the children in the city.
Answer to school woes: Drop the kicker
I am a parent of three children in Portland Public Schools, and I'm actively involved in fundraising. I have lain awake many nights and spent countless hours talking with other frustrated parents about the inability of our state to fund education.
I've had many ideas, some good (sales tax), some bad (using casino revenues to fund vital programs) and some strange (making state legislators teach a class of 35 fourth-graders until they pass a stable budget).
After reading state revenue projections, past PPS budgets and listening to other ideas, I have come to a new conclusion: Why not get rid of the kicker?
Since our tax structure is so volatile, the kicker just doesn't make sense. No state relies more on the income tax as a revenue source than Oregon. When the economy is strong, people make more money and pay more in income taxes. When the economy is weak, people make less and pay less. (We also need to be mindful of the type of wage earner Oregon attracts). Knowing our income tax revenue will rise and fall regularly, shouldn't we save some of that money for the rainy days?
In the most recent forecast, state economists last week projected a $205 million corporate kicker for the current biennium. That would follow a $101 million corporate kicker for the 2003-05 budget cycles. The latest forecast also anticipated a personal kicker totaling $461 million in 2007.
Imagine what we could do with that money. Eliminating the kicker sure beats the heck out of ruining our state by adding casinos.
Portland classes already too large
I just read your very interesting Rethinking Portland Public Schools section. If I didn't have two boys in school I would wonder why more money would be needed.
Several articles state that Portland could increase class size to save money, and that the district's student-to-teacher ratio is 18.8 to 1. My sons attend Llewellyn Elementary, a wonderful neighborhood school that has fantastic teachers and involved parents. The only downside at Llewellyn is the large class sizes. My second-grader is in a classroom of 30 students. Other classrooms are larger, and the average classroom size at the school is around 27, which is much the same at other elementary schools, according to friends with children at various schools.
The teachers at Llewellyn continue to amaze me with the fantastic job they do despite the large class sizes, but it's difficult for them to give individual attention to 30 children in a classroom. Don't try to fit more in!
Last year, Llewellyn formed a foundation to try to decrease current classroom sizes and will feel successful if we hire a half-time teacher for next year. That 'success' will be greatly marginalized if the projections hold true and we lose three teachers for the same school year.
The district may need to find some cuts somewhere, but it shouldn't be in the classrooms.