Damage for Decades to Come

"Constitutionally-mandated government report" is not my favorite genre of reading, but that's what was on the docket this morning. Yesterday, the Joint Special Committee on Public Education Appropriation met and had a monotonously-named but important report briefed for them: the "Report on Adequacy of Public Education Funding As Required by Article VIII, Section 8, of the Oregon Constitution".

Doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it? The report is relatively extensive at 28 pages, but the critical point, as you might predict, is that public education funding in Oregon is inadequate.

What you might not predict is just how inadequately funded the education system is. Here's the key line from the report:

"It is the determination of the Joint Special Committee on Public Education Appropriation that the amount of moneys appropriated for the 2017-2019 biennium for K-12 public education is insufficient to meet the recommended funding levels of the [Quality Education Commission]. The [Quality Education Model] estimated that a State School Fund appropriation of $9.97 billion for K-12 would be required to reach the State’s educational goals. The adopted budget for 2017-2019 included an appropriation of $8.20 billion, resulting in a gap of $1.77 billion."

$1.77 billion. Billion, with a "b." That's an 18% gap between where we say we ought to be and where we are. And, by the way, "where we ought to be," in this case is a relatively unambitious goal. Fully funding the Quality Education Model (QEM) would put Oregon right about the national average in per pupil funding. We're one and three quarter billion dollars away from being average in per pupil funding. The report listed where this missing $1.77 billion ought to be spent if we had it: more teachers, more counselors, better building maintenance, instructional improvement, technology improvements, and more. Oregon students won't get any of that, though. Apparently we can't afford it. Apparently, when it comes to education funding, "average" is just out of reach. 

The primary drivers of this gap, according to the report, are insufficient revenue growth and the rapidly increasing costs of actually delivering education (salaries, retirement and health benefits, etc.). This is not groundbreaking news -- the report has said as much for years, and the refrain in the Oregon Capitol is familiar to those who spend time there. Democrats say we need revenue reform. Republicans say we need to control the cost of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS).

And here we are. 

One thing I love about Oregonians is that we're proud of where we're from and our state's history. Governor Vic Atiyeh summarized it well with the concluding lines from his second inaugural address: 

"Our feeling is shared, in good times and bad, by every citizen. As in the first century of our history, so in the second century and beyond, I know that our citizens -- and each one of us -- can stand anywhere in the world and count it a matter of special pride to say:

'I am an Oregonian.'"

I love that quote. 

There's another quote from Atiyeh's second inaugural that I also love, and it's as appropriate today as it was in 1983 when he said it:

"If we now think only of this biennium, if we insist on limping through another two years with half measures and temporary solutions, our inaction will damage our state for decades to come. It is always difficult to take the long view. But it is critical for the future of Oregon."

Damage for decades to come. Critical for the future of Oregon. Those words should echo through the halls of the Oregon Capitol.

Jake Arnold of the Oregon School Boards Association wrote about the discussion following the report briefing in the legislature, describing a question that a legislator asked a lobbyist for the state's teachers union: "If the Legislature funded any of the shortfall areas but required that the money be used specifically for that purpose, which areas would OEA support?" It didn't take long for half measures and temporary solutions to take center stage.

Governor Atiyeh presided over a severe financial recession in the early 1980s. Much has changed since then; there are a lot of new reasons why permanent solutions that achieve adequate education funding are hard: disastrous ballot measures, polarized politics, rising costs. But, as the late Governor Atiyeh would remind us, "it is always difficult to take the long view." It's time for this generation of Oregonians to take the long view and earn for ourselves the special pride that we inherited.