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Students, taxpayers deserve bolder PERS reforms

In my recent visits to schools around the district — including Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove and Hillsboro High School — it is apparent that we must do a better job of funding education.

The $14 billion deficit in Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is one of the defining issues of this legislative session. It is well documented that the broken retirement system is putting a serious drain on local classrooms and on government resources.

Earlier this month, the Senate voted on a bill intended to address this issue. I voted against Senate Bill 822 because it was crafted in a hyper-partisan process and doesn’t do enough to fix the fundamental problems in PERS.

Most importantly, it leaves our classrooms underfunded.

Over the last two years, PERS costs for schools and local governments have increased by $2 billion. That $2 billion has vanished from classrooms and police departments. That $2 billion could have gone to hiring teachers, lengthening the school year and shrinking class sizes.

This budget cycle alone, more than $500 per student is going just to pay for skyrocketing retirement costs.

The savings in SB 822 fall well short of the $2 billion threshold. SB 822 relies on a set of changes that don’t provide local classrooms with enough relief. What’s more, SB 822 defers $350 million in PERS payments, temporarily lowering payments today by borrowing $350 million from the future, with interest. This type of “skip-a-payment” scheme is a bad idea for a family, and it is a bad idea for the state — actually making the problem worse.

Nearly all Oregon newspapers and a broad collation of classroom and business groups, such as Stand for Children and the Oregon Business Plan, have panned the SB 822 proposal. It’s obvious that it just doesn’t do enough.

I believe there is the opportunity to find a bipartisan, bold, effective solution to PERS, a solution that will put more resources into classrooms and provide long-term fixes to the systematic flaws in PERS. I want to collaborate and find common ground with Democrats on a solution that provides real reform and results.

With serious reforms, schools across the state could hire up to 2,200 new teachers, dramatically reducing class sizes. Or schools could choose to add nine school days, increasing the amount of instruction time students receive. With visionary reinvestment in our schools, we could see dramatic turnarounds in grades and graduation rates.

And that is the type of courageous action our classrooms need. I am deeply concerned that only a third of Oregon eighth-graders are proficient in math and reading, only 35 percent are proficient in science and only 68 percent of high school freshmen graduate within four years.

Something needs to change. Money isn’t the only answer, but it is certainly a part of the solution. Our Washington County schools need to be able to produce graduates ready to compete in a competitive global economy — anything else is not a success.

For the last decade, education spending as a percentage of the state budget has dramatically declined. Problems like PERS accentuate the problem, siphoning money out of local education budgets that are already too small.

Real, bold PERS reform can help reverse the cycle of chronic underfunding of classrooms, as I saw in my visit to local schools. In fact, I believe that enacting bold PERS reform is one of the most important things this Legislature can do to position today’s students for success tomorrow. Real, substantial reform will have an impact designed to resonate far into the future with beneficial results.

But like all of the best policy decisions in Salem, it will require bipartisanship and political courage. Those ingredients are essential to true leadership, no matter the crisis.

State Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican, represents Oregon's 15th Legislative District, which includes Hillsboro, North Plains, Cornelius and Forest Grove.



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