As our kids return to school, it’s important to take a step back and assess the state of public education and its future. With the economy continuing to affect school funding, the past few years have been difficult for our local schools. But everyone can agree that every child should have the best education. We must work together to ensure they get it.

It goes without saying that we want as much funding for our schools as possible. Because most K-12 education funding comes from state government, it’s challenging during a severe economic downturn to adequately fund schools while preserving other critical programs. Fortunately, the current legislature spared K-12 the deep cuts that were implemented elsewhere. In fact, we increased state funding while eliminating unfunded mandates that were taking money away from classrooms.

Fund schools first

Next session, it will be especially critical for the Legislature to fund schools first and put kids at the front of the line for funding. Prior to the 2011 Legislature, when we passed the K-12 budget first, education was often treated as a political football as special interests competed for limited state resources at the end of session. Next year Salem must again fund schools first to give greater certainty to school districts as they determine their own budgets for the coming school year.

Address PERS

It’s also critical for the Legislature to pursue additional options to increase classroom funding. For example, we can direct a substantial amount of money to education by tackling PERS reform. Currently, our local schools districts must allocate millions of dollars to their PERS premiums, an amount that’s increasing almost every year well beyond inflation. Modest reforms can save money that can be used to save teaching positions and instructional days. However, I won’t support reforms that are unconstitutional or breach our obligations to retired employees.

Common sense reforms and innovation

In addition to increasing funding, the Legislature must continue to pursue education reform. Parents deserve more options to find an education that meets their child’s unique learning needs.

More to be done

I’m proud of the positive steps that we have taken.

During the 2011 session I voted for over a dozen bipartisan school reform bills that give students, parents and teachers more tools to help students succeed. In addition to allowing more parents to enroll their children in the district of their choice, I supported legislation allowing more kids to enroll in virtual charter schools that may be better tailored to those who aren’t succeeding in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

We also lifted regulatory burdens to permit the creation of more innovative public charter schools.

For example, OHSU could partner with other institutions to establish a charter school that offers real-world health and science coursework to students for future careers.

By encouraging more students to pursue advanced coursework, Oregon will have a better-trained workforce and greater ability to attract and retain employers.

The past few years have been challenging, but recent accomplishments in Salem show we’re making progress.

We need a stronger economy to generate more revenue for schools, but in the meantime the Legislature must continue to pass measures that give greater flexibility to school districts while giving parents greater choices for their children.

As our kids return to school, we should give them every opportunity to succeed and achieve better lives.

Rep. Matt Wand is a business attorney, and represents House District 49 in the Oregon Legislature.

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