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Talk about schools must start with jobs

Complaining about insufficient school funding has become an annual spring pastime in Oregon, occurring every time the Legislature gathers in Salem.

We agree that Oregon must do a better job of getting money into classrooms, where it can reduce student-teacher ratios, bring back arts and vocational classes and restore cut school days.

It is pointless, however, to talk about more money for schools without first considering where those dollars will come from. Plainly put, in a state low property taxes and no sales tax, unless more Oregonians are working at the best possible jobs — and thereby paying higher state income taxes — this state always will come up short on funds for education.

With that in mind, the most important long-term strategy for legislators isn’t simply to say that education is their top priority, but to focus on statewide economic goals that will encourage growth in the number and quality of jobs. Those jobs will increase tax collections for the state, which can then invest in an educated work force that will attract even more good employers.

The 2013 Legislature has immediate opportunities to move the economy forward by making public investments — or by adopting policies that create a better environment for growth. Among these opportunities are:

• Pressing ahead with the Columbia River Crossing, which needs action in 2013 to qualify for the federal funding that will pay for the bulk of the project. This new I-5 bridge between Oregon and Washington will support nearly 2,000 construction-related jobs in the short term and improve the regional economy by allowing for better movement of people, goods and services along I-5.

• Approving another round of transportation improvements throughout Oregon. An additional $100 million in lottery-backed bonds, if approved by the 2013 Legislature, would continue Oregon’s recent progress toward better roads, rail and marine facilities.

• Taking the newly-created Oregon Growth Board to the next level by dedicating permanent funding for the five-member panel , so it can continue its mission of encouraging promising private-sector ventures in Oregon.

• Remembering the economic potential of rural Oregon. The metro area should not be the main focus for economic development in this state. Agriculture, timber and other resource-based industries built Oregon’s economy in the first place, and they can be enhanced greatly if all legislators — urban and rural — understand the value of healthy rural communities. Newly elected state Rep. Ben Unger campaigned on the promise of promoting Oregon’s small farms, and we expect him to make good on this pledge starting in his first term.

These are just a few of the economic steps required of the 2013 Legislature — and they would help lay a better economic foundation to support schools and other state services. None of this is to say, of course, that the school funding situation cannot be improved sooner by using short-term measures, including changes to the Public Employees Retirement System.

The PERS reforms proposed by Gov. John Kitzhaber would put money back in the classroom immediately. As he noted in his State of the State address Tuesday, PERS costs will pencil out to $500 per student in the next biennium — money that has no impact on their education.

That's why we’re heartened the Forest Grove School District is convening a meeting of lawmakers and school officials throughout Washington County Thursday to look beyond what the governor has proposed. That gathering, coming just two weeks days before the legislative session starts in earnest, has the potential to shape the debate in Salem.

Finally, while some say it will never happen, a tax overhaul that would give Oregon a more stable revenue base for the future is worth pursuing — perhaps as early as 2014.

Oregon, however, has talked about tax reform for about as long as it has bemoaned its unstable financing for schools. All that talk has led to little in the way of permanent change — and that’s why the only sure method of improving the long-term outlook for school funding is to have our lawmakers focus on the economy.




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