The Governor is required to present a recommended budget at the start of each Legislative Assembly. It becomes the starting point for putting together the budget for each biennium. Her budget for education in the current biennium was less than $8 billion. That represented a significant increase over and above the previous biennium. However, the Legislature was quickly informed by school districts and higher education that the amount really needed was $8.4 billion just to maintain the current level of service.
I fought to get us to a level of funding of $8.4 billion. I talked to school district officials and school boards in District 18 and met face to face with most during the 2017 Legislative session in order to get a better handle on the level of funding needed. They verified for me that anything less than $8.4 billion would result in either a reduced level of service or a requirement to go into limited reserves within the districts in order to maintain a current level of service. I also learned that in at least one school district, the additional $200 million in funding would go to teacher salaries and benefits.
I believe it is travesty that with an increase in revenue of nearly $1.8 billion over the course of the current biennium, the Legislature was unable to fund at the $8.4 billion level and higher. Although $8.4 billion would have represented an increase in education funding of approximately 13% over and above any previous biennium, our children deserve the very best education we can provide. We’ve all seen the statistics on Oregon’s graduation rate and quality of education. Children, parents and teachers deserve better.
In the end, after watching some of the programs that were funded by the Legislature while neglecting funding for education, I could not support the funding level of $8.2 billion, a level $200 million below that which was required to maintain a current level of service. I voted ‘no’ on the education funding bill for that reason.
So where do we go from here? Several of my Republican colleagues have proposed bills that would make education funding a priority and ensure that funding for education be approved well in advance of other funding requests (such as $750,000 for a new tourist information center at the Japanese Garden in Portland, or the $100+ million and $8 million additional for a courthouse in Portland and furnishings). It becomes a question of priorities. And the question is this: is education a priority? Yes or no. If the answer is yes, then we should be dealing with funding for education early in the session and we should be ensuring that funding is sufficient not only for maintaining the status quo, but for improving the quality of education. We should accept nothing less.
One might ask why so much more money is needed for education over and above previous years and why is the cost being driven upward? The answer is for the same reason so many other programs suffer. The failure to address the PERS unfunded liability is driving costs up. The failure to address unsustainable health care funding is driving the cost up. Projections are that the increase in the cost to school districts for their share of the PERS unfunded liability will be in excess of $300 million in the next biennium. We will start the next biennium hopefully with an increase in revenue because the economy in Oregon has done so well, but we have $200 million underfunded this biennium and $300+ million for the increase in PERS to deal with right out of the gate.
I am committed to making education funding a priority. I will continue to support efforts to get education funding set and established early in the biennium, both so we know the level of funding and so school districts and higher ed can budget accordingly.
I also opposed a bill in the last session that made classroom size a mandatory subject of bargaining. The bill did pass. I completely support reducing classroom size, but I do not believe it should be a subject of mandatory bargaining as leverage at the bargaining table. In my conversations with school district officials, I learned that they already engage in permissive bargaining over class size. The district officials that I met with are committed to limiting class size as much as possible and they have those discussions, but they opposed making it a mandatory subject of bargaining. Classroom availability comes down quite often to the willingness of local communities to build more schools or add on to existing schools. They rely on bond measures to make that happen.
The answer to fully funding education is not to raise taxes. The answer lies in reforming PERS and coming up with a sustainable health care model to reduce health care costs. That will go a long way toward putting more money in the classroom. We can neglect this problem no longer.