August 26, 2017
As Oregon's K-12 students prepare for a new school year, parents eyeing larger class sizes and the state's miserably low graduation rate should make time to do some homework themselves. The assignment: Understand what it really means to advocate for education funding.
It's more complicated than parroting cries to make corporations "pay their fair share," the bumper sticker slogan pushed by the teachers union and others. Or marching in Salem demanding that legislators dedicate more revenue. Because to really understand why our schools continue to deliver less to students than other states, parents and community members must delve into the uncomfortable facts of where education dollars are going in the first place.
They can start with some basic truths about funding for our K-12 system. Oregon legislators have allocated Oregon's school districts more money than ever before. In fact, the K-12 budget for the 2017-2019 biennium is 11 percent greater than the budget in 2015-2017. That should be good news.
Yet school districts are making significant cuts due to rising pension and benefit costs, as The Oregonian/OregonLive's Gordon Friedman recently reported. Portland Public Schools, which is receiving $29 million more from the state for the 2017 school year, is cutting 55 teachers' positions. Salem-Keizer is getting $31 million more and slashing 67 teaching positions. Think about that again. Tens of millions of dollars in more money and still they're cutting jobs.
That should raise one big question: Why? And then another: How do we fix that? Unfortunately, state leaders and the teachers union - our presumed education advocates - have instead sought to distract the public from those questions. Instead, they focus solely on revenue while others insist, falsely, that nothing can be done to ease the pension burden. That's exactly why parents and community members who are tired of students bearing the cost of pusillanimous politicians must look past the rhetoric, evaluate the situation and pressure legislators, the governor and school leaders to stop protecting adults and do something for students.
That means confronting the burden that the Public Employees Retirement System is placing on school districts. Schools and other public employers face steep increases in their required contributions to the pension fund due to a $24 billion imbalance between what the fund has and what it will owe in benefits. Those contributions are going to spike again in the 2019-2021 biennium and get even worse after that, seizing larger and larger shares of taxpayer money meant for providing services.
But earlier this year, Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek abruptly pulled the plug on proposals to ease those contributions by having employees share some of the burden of funding their own pensions. That's hardly unreasonable. Public employees receive both a pension and a separate 401(k)-like retirement account. Yes, both. It's a generous package that few private-sector employers offer. And Oregon's is the only pension in the country that requires no contribution from employees.
And that's only one aspect of how the state can temper the rise of pension costs if it could find the backbone to do so. While a state Supreme Court decision in 2015 ruled that the state cannot reduce benefits already earned, it also made clear the state has the authority to change benefits moving forward. One possibility? The state could eliminate its three-tiered system for calculating pension benefits for employees in their remaining years and go with the least-expensive tier, which has been in place for employees hired since 2003.
Then there's health benefits. Premiums for Oregon teachers are considerably higher than the national average, as a report by the Eugene Register-Guard in April showed. A Portland State University study recently found several Oregon school districts paying thousands of dollars more in health insurance than Seattle does for its teachers. And many teachers contribute nothing to their health insurance premiums. While the Legislature made a little headway in looking at teacher and public employee health care costs, the heavy lift is still to come.
The more districts spend on benefits, the less there is for salaries for additional teachers, librarians, school counselors and reading specialists - all of whom have a direct impact on students' education. Want physical education or other programs? Then press state leaders to confront the problems they ducked this year.
While this state needs a more stable revenue system that shifts more of the tax burden onto businesses, it's simply a red herring to claim that the state's K-12 troubles stem from corporations not paying enough.
Teachers absolutely deserve fair compensation and benefits. But this state needs an honest conversation about what "fair" means. Parents and community members can help spark that discussion by finding out for themselves what's driving K-12's funding problems and asking the uncomfortable questions. Then, they should insist that Brown and state legislators who claim to be education advocates show that they actually are.
- The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board