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Parrish on education funding: We need top-down reform


State Reps. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, and Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, came together recently at Lake Oswego Junior High School for a town hall discussion on Oregon education funding during a time when all districts, including the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, have been struggling to stay sufficiently subsidized.

“We’re starting to hurt. The rest of the state is in real trouble. So now we’re going to fix it,” said Courtney Clements, LOJHS Advisory Committee member, inviting the representatives to brainstorm.

Both Parrish and Garrett said they had a personal, vested interest in education funding. by: DREW DAKESSIAN - State Reps. Julie Parrish and Chris Garrett discuss education funding at a town hall meeting.

“As a mom of three kids in public schools and the only person in my family to graduate in a meaningful way from high school and the only one to go to college,” Parrish said, “I care deeply and passionately about how education lifts you up out of poverty and lifts you up into a different place in your life.”

Garrett said he had been through Oregon’s public education system during the height of its academic offerings, instilling a commitment in him to bring it back.

“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 Measures 47 and 50 in 1997, 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 said. “Conversations about where and how we’re spending these dollars need to happen in a realistic way.”

Parrish’s thinking on the other primary state budgetary line item, social services, was much the same.

“We have $800 million for special ed. Some of that is health care that’s being delivered in the classroom. If you look at school funding on the table, some of those families that are getting health care in the classroom are probably on the Oregon Health Plan,” she said. “How do we start to break down some of those walls in spending so that we’re not delivering two sets of services?”

Parrish went on to say that because Oregon is an income tax state, “Having 17,000 unemployed in Oregon is problematic to school funding. ... We have to come back to the Legislature and focus on how we get people working and increase revenue stream, which brings up money for schools.”

Echoing her recent campaign platform, Parrish suggested diverting available revenues toward job creation so as to “get people off the social service programs who truly want to be working.”

Parrish took issue not just with how funding is appropriated, but also with the potential of its sources. In last November’s general election, the passage of Measure 85 amended the constitution to retain excess corporate income tax and excise tax revenues in the state’s general fund, rather than kick it back to the corporate income and taxpayers, to be used to provide additional funding for K-12 public education.

“The notion that’s going to be the savior for schools, I think, is a little bit flawed thinking,” Parrish said. “Measure 85 ... only works as a funding mechanism when the kicker kicks, or when the state is doing well and there’s money to kick back in.”

And while Parrish threw her weight behind the dominant thought in Salem on two issues — saying she would support Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed reforms on the Public Employees Retirement System, and that she approved of Rudy Crew, the state’s first chief education officer with a storied resume and controversial plans for education improvement — her philosophy presented at the town hall by and large diverged from convention.

“We asked that teachers have a fifth-year degree; that hasn’t produced better outcomes. We spent a lot of money; that hasn’t produced better outcomes. We take away money for programs some kids are interested in doing,” she said. “There’s some level of customization that fits the needs of my child, so if we’re selling that every kid is going to Harvard ... and my child ... would like to drop out of school and build furniture and there’s not a pathway for him, I don’t know how we fix that.”

Instead, she said, “It is time for us to get out of our own boxes and be an advocate for somebody else’s child.”