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Education funding the hot topic at town hall

State Reps. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, and Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, recently came together for a town hall to discuss how the state of Oregon funds its education system during a time when all districts have been struggling to stay sufficiently subsidized.

Garrett, who serves several neighborhoods in Southwest Portland as well, attended Capitol Hill Elementary School, Jackson Middle School and Wilson High School during the height of the Oregon public education system's academic offerings, instilling a commitment in him to bring it back to its past levels.

“I came out of our neighboring district at Wilson High School in 1992. I think I graduated right at the peak, and my sister who graduated three years after I did saw the impact,” he said. “This has been very personal to me since I first got involved in politics and ran for office. Education funding, K-12 funding has been going down as a percentage of state spending for several years now.”

With the passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990 and Ballot Measures 47 and 50 in 1997, state revenue, state revenue from income taxes replaced local revenue from property taxes as the primary source of school funding in Oregon. But due to budget cuts and demands on state funds in other areas, funding for education has shrunk.

With an increasing amount of state funding diverted toward corrections and social services, “If we make no changes to current policy, we’ll be spending another $600 million to build an estimated 2,000 new prison beds,” Garrett said. “To avoid those costs, we have no choice but to make some changes to our criminal justice policies.”

“Yes, we have folks in prison; we also have some of the highest labor costs for housing prisoners, and something needs to be done to address the cost … compared to some of our neighboring states,” Parrish agreed. “Conversations about where and how we’re spending these dollars need to happen in a realistic way.”

What’s more, Garrett said, property tax revenue allocated toward education — 30 percent — is less and less helpful due to tax compression.

But, Garrett said, “The housing market will take care of itself ... I’m sponsoring legislation to deal with that," including co-sponsoring legislation to reform the personal income tax kicker.

He added: “In terms of funding, we’ve had a long conversation in the state about equalization: every district should have an equal allocation. It gets harder and harder as a representative from a district that is so committed to its schools to live with that the state owes every district a baseline opportunity. If a city wants to tax itself more to give more to its kids, they have the right do that.”

And, he said, “We need statutory, if necessary, constitutional change to allow you the right to take full advantage of tax you’re allowed to impose yourselves.”

All of this would be in service of a very specific purpose, Garrett later said.

"What we want to see," he said, "is more teachers, smaller class sizes, and restoration of electives like arts and music and PE. That’s the most direct consequence of increased funding."