Each year, the trade publication Education Week ranks the public school systems of the 50 states + District of Columbia. The criteria the rankings are based on include, among other things, accountability standards, college readiness of high school graduates, spending and student equity. Granted, 2011 has been a tough year with the nation’s state budgets reeling from the effects of the recession, but this year only eight states rank below Oregon. To add insult to injury, we also find ourselves 4.8 points below the US national average. Although there are no real shining stars among the 50 states (Maryland tops out at a B+), our C- still stings. And, that feeling doesn’t improve much once we throw a justifiably nervous glance outside of our borders.
Leaving the relative academic homogeneity of our own pond for a swim in international waters, the US as a whole is struggling to keep its nose above the median in all academic areas. Both that and this link are sobering reading, which brings me to the point of this post.
In 1990, by a margin of 52,811 votes, Ballot Measure 5 was passed. It was an amendment to the Oregon Constitution that essentially “established limits on Oregon’s property taxes on real estate”. To further quote Wikipedia, “Property taxes dedicated for school funding were capped at $15.00 per $1,000 of real market value per year, and gradually lowered to $5. Property taxes for other purposes were capped at $10 per $1,000 per year. Thus the total property tax rate would be 1.5% at the end of the five-year phase in period. The measure transferred the responsibility for school funding from local government to the state, to equalize funding.”
Proponents of the Measure argued that shifting the responsibility for funding the schools onto the state would serve as a great equalizer between districts statewide, as funds would now be doled out based on the number of students in each district. They also felt this shift in responsibility would protect vulnerable home owners in prime real estate areas from the rapidly rising property taxes caused by the ongoing economic boom. Others still, voted for the Measure, expecting a sales tax – which would take the place of the property taxes – would be implemented to protect the schools. This, of course, never happened.
Meanwhile, opponents of the Measure predicted massive cuts in government services. In fact, the then governor warned that Measure 5 would lead to massive chaos. With the accuracy of over 20 years of 20/20 hindsight, one can only lament that she was right. In effect, Measure 5 pulled the rug out from underneath Oregon public schools in general, and PPS schools in particular (since Portland is the largest city in the state). The buffer of the expected sales tax never materialized. Oregon is – still – one of only five states that does not have a sales tax. So, the last 20 years has been a never ceasing cavalcade of cuts, more cuts, and even more cuts, with one essential piece after another disappearing from the formerly well-rounded public education.
About 5 years later, in response to the inevitable economic cuts in the wake of Measure 5, The Portland Schools Foundation was founded. By now the pain of all these cuts were starting to be felt throughout, and a way to allow individual schools to raise money to keep their schools afloat, was needed. Several schools had already established their own non-profit foundations to buy back the staff and teaching positions they had lost, but it soon became clear that only a few of Portland’s neighborhoods had the financial capacity to support their own foundations. In order to address these budding inequities, a city-wide foundation (PSF) was formed. It currently operates on the stipulation that schools that raise beyond $10,000 have to donate 1/3 or their earnings (above the $10K) to the Foundation for use by other less affluent schools. However well-intended, this has further exacerbated the inequity problem. Although the ravages of Measure 5 affect all – through the one third/two third-policy of the Portland Schools Foundation, wealthy area schools inevitably become wealthier, and the strife of the less affluent to compete is continually worsening.
Among many other things desperate parents do to scrape together money to give their kids even a fraction of the academic opportunities they themselves enjoyed when they grew up, many schools hold annual auctions. Our school’s auction is this week. Although I’m not one of the primary movers and shakers in this monstrously time consuming venture, I did spend this past few weeks sewing, cutting, painting, and coming up with cost-effective, visually powerful ways to decorate our venue. I rejoiced when my costs came in at $40 less than my shoestring $350 budget. But, it was a bitter-sweet joy. You see, I’m sadly convinced, that all this effort, on part of so many hard-working people, is for naught. Every year, the Citizens of Multnomah County are asked to vote for yet another local option levy, in order to even maintain status quo! This year, even if the levy passes, we stand to lose teachers! I don’t even want to think about what will happen if it doesn’t pass… In no way will we be able to make enough money to buy back all those lost jobs. Tax payers are also asked to approve of a multi-million dollar bond measure to repair and update our crumbling buildings. Is it really needed? Absolutely – it was needed decades ago.
I’m helping out with this auction because like every other caring parent, I want to help make my kids’ lives and educational experience better, even if I know in my heart that doing it this way is a superficial pursuit. My – and everybody else’s – time would be much better spent working hard toward an immediate repeal of Measure 5. Or maybe throw our efforts toward implementing an Oregon sales tax. At this point, putting on auctions, bake sales and the like, are akin to putting a band-aid on a freshly amputated arm – it’s a royal waste of time! Personally, I would much rather just pay a tax, and not have to bother with all the worrying that my kids are being short-changed by their society. These kids are destined to take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves. If we want them to show us compassion and possess the values and skills of a well-educated person, we have to help them instill those values and build those skills NOW! Forcing them to operate on less and less every year is both dangerous to the future of a functioning society and morally unacceptable. There is a great bumper sticker that states: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” We owe it to our kids to act swiftly and without hesitation – the funding of the formal schooling of our offspring has to come from somewhere… Banking on the idea that they will figure it out for themselves when they reach college, is like wreckless spending on credit we don’t have. We just can’t afford it!
Education is like a bridge, helping to link unbridled, narcissist and id-driven egos to more socially functional super-egos. Just as unmaintained bridges will eventually collapse, so will a society without educated humans. With the global challenges the world faces today, this is not one of the areas in which we should cut resources. Quite the contrary – this year Portland, however reluctantly – vote YES on Measure 26-121 and 26-122. At least, vote for the levy. The timing for the bond measure could hardly be worse… Either way, it will hurt, but not as much as much as sacrificing the shaping of entire generations will. For next year, lets focus on finding a long-term solution for our schools, be it revising our property taxes, adopting a sales tax, or whatever the solution may be. We need all great minds to ponder this one… Finding a stable source of funding for our schools is crucial to our societal bottom line. The cost of ignoring it will eventually be astronomical, and promises an apocalyptical scenario that is best avoided. Sorry people – another year of auctions and bake sales just won’t cut it!