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Legislators must reverse slide in education funding

It’s good that the fire marshal didn’t drop by last week’s education town hall at Century High School. The March 22 event was set up in a classroom designed to seat 100, but roughly 200 people turned out in Hillsboro to discuss education funding in Oregon with a trio of state lawmakers. Perhaps fittingly, those wanting to talk about topics such as crowded K-12 classrooms were crammed into a room designed to hold half the number who showed up, forcing attendees into the aisles, doorways and the hallway.

The packed venue was not the only irony. One citizen noted that the reader board in front of the building was reminding students and parents that there would be no classes the next day, because it was a “school reduction day” — another direct result of recent cuts in funding for public schools.

Judging by the mood of the scores of citizens (and voters) crammed into that classroom, legislators can no longer sidestep the issue of K-12 funding in Oregon.

Ken Jackson, whose grandchildren are enrolled in the Hillsboro School District, pointed out at last Thursday’s public forum that he does not believe Oregon’s legislators are making public education a priority.

He’s right. As Rep. Ben Unger pointed out, the state’s commitment to K-12 schools, when measured as a percent of discretionary spending, has been on a downward spiral for the past 10 years.

Unger, whose district includes central and western Hillsboro, noted that in the 2003-2005 biennium legislators set aside 44.8 percent of the state general fund budget for K-12 education. In 2011-2013, the percentage had dropped to 39.1 percent, and for the 2013-2015 biennium, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s budget would allocate just 37.6 percent of Oregon’s budget to K-12 schools.

That’s simply not enough. The governor and lawmakers need to see to it that providing a top quality education for those who will comprise Oregon’s work force of the future is the state’s number one priority, rather than an afterthought, and do so before new mandates — such as the upcoming requirement for K-12 schools to provide full-time kindergarten starting in 2015 — place even more strains on schools.

Oregon has reached a point where continuing to reduce funding for education is counterproductive. How many businesses might decide not to set up shop in Hillsboro or North Plains because of the declining quality of Oregon’s schools? How many jobs won’t be created, and how much tax revenue will be lost as a result? Those intangibles are potentially very serious, even if they cannot be directly measured.

The issues are tough ones indeed, but there is some reason for hope after seeing Democratic state Reps. Unger and Joe Gallegos find strong agreement on this issue with state Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican.

All three of the Hillsboro legislators who addressed the overflow crowd of concerned parents, staff and students deserve credit, not only for recognizing the importance of this issue, but also for their pledge to vote “no” on the state’s budget if funding for education is not boosted.

All three said they believe the proposed $6.75 billion for K-12 education statewide is simply not enough to, as Starr put it, prevent the state from continuing “to disinvest in education.”

Oregon’s legislators have a tough job ahead in figuring out a way to boost funding for public education while not gutting other vital programs. Certainly, reform of the Public Employees Retirement System is a good place to start, though pressure from unions to keep the status quo is intense.

Still, dealing with complex issues such as this is why voters sent them to Salem. Our legislators need to stop bemoaning the daunting problems involved and find a way to get it done. If they needed any further motivation, last week’s turnout in Hillsboro should have provided it.




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