The Minnis Plan for Schools: Not Good Enough

By State Representative Larry Galizio of Tigard, Oregon.

In an editorial today (Wrap it up, June 19, 2005) suggesting a 'to do' list for the 73rd Legislative Assembly, the Oregonian states that HB 3460, the cleverly-titled K-12 school funding plan from Karen Minnis, 'deserves a careful, serious look' -- I couldn't agree with you more.

As a freshman legislator and member of the House Revenue Committee that heard public testimony on the original proposal, I have had the opportunity to track its changes and journey through the chamber.

The fact is, this scheme is as much a plan for the stable funding of Oregon schools as George W. Bush's 'Clear Skies' initiative fosters clean air. The Minnis plan relies on such a shaky and unstable foundation that a more apt name would be 'The Earthquake Plan.'

For starters, the plan's raison d'etre, according to its proponents, is stable school funding. Despite this, the plan's funding mechanism, the personal income tax, is the most volatile element of our tax code. As these editorial pages have articulated numerous times, Oregon's volatile and unstable tax structure results from an over reliance on the personal income tax. Yet the Speaker's 'stability plan' proffers this most unstable and erratic funding mechanism as its foundation. This structural flaw alone, constitutes sufficient grounds to reject the plan.

Secondly, the bill completely severs the relationship between Oregon's business community and investment in Oregon's public schools. By eliminating entirely corporate tax support for Oregon's next generation, the funding scheme does a disservice to our business community and sends the wrong message to all Oregonians. The vast majority of Oregon's business community understands the link between investment in public education, and a productive and skilled workforce. The Minnis plan, by cutting off corporate support of schools, divides two Oregon communities that are interdependent and should remain mutually supportive.

Third, the plan essentially mandates continued disinvestment in Oregon's schools. The Minnis scheme initially proposed 50% of personal income taxes for schools, but even political allies of the Speaker couldn't defend this number. Placed in historical context, the Minnis proposal would cut school funding to the lowest level its ever been in the post-WW II era. The shortened school year, some of the largest classroom sizes in the nation, the loss of music and drama, and the elimination of over one thousand teaching positions, have all taken place with a 52% of personal income tax figure. The Minnis plan would cut that to 51%.

Even if you believe that using the personal income tax as the sole source of school funding is viable, stability is a necessary but insufficient condition of an efficacious school funding policy. Put simply, stable inadequacy is neither practical nor desirable.

Finally, I would urge all citizens concerned with our K-12 public school funding, to study HB 3498, a school funding policy that contains true stability, adequacy, and predictability.

Comments

  • LT (unverified)
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    Great column!

    My suspicion is that the Speaker and her allies would not be able to give an equally specific counterpoint ( that the income tax is stable when people have been saying for years it is unstable, where the 51% comes from, etc.)

    Also, I think there is a larger point--do lobbyists speak for their membership in a way that precludes independent thought?

    Salem elected 4 new school board members recently: Mink, Day, Kimball, Jones. The OSBA lobbyist was behind Minnis on stage when she announced her plan prior to the school board elections.

    Some of the commentary from journalists and public figures has been "the school boards support this". No, their lobbyist supports this.

    I think that in order to have serious, intelligent dialogue on issues like school budgets we need commentary like this column by the good freshman st. rep. from Dist. 35. We also need the sort of hard working journalists and others doing their homework to discover, for instance, how many actual school board members agree with the stand taken by their lobbyist.

    Some things cost money, some only involve hard work.

    I applaud Rep. Galizio for the thought that went into writing this column. Now if only we could get thoughtful commentary from others we would be in much better shape.

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    I second LT's praise--great post. You also saved me from another Minnis rant, which probably everyone would regard as good news.

    The first two points you make are well-taken, but from my outsider's perspective, it's really point three that seems like the motivation behind the bill (which the O acknowledged when they wrote ath the "big question about Minnis' plan is whether it would institutionalize a level of school funding that is clearly inadequate.")

    It has always looked like one of those classic "poison pill" bills--at it's nougaty center, a boobie trap that not only undoes the good the bill is puported to accomplish, but actually does exactly the opposite. What's shocking to me is that the Oregonian so easily abets this dishonesty by not calling Minnis out. Sure, Dems are playing a partisan hand of Texas hold-em. They're just not playing with an ace up their sleeve.

  • keyfur (unverified)
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    great post. this idea of minnis' has been simmering for a while. the oregonian reported on it a while ago and i was struck by one fact they pointed out. minnis' proposed number of 51% [their number from what i can remember] was a funding cut from the republican proposed budget. i cannot believe what our leaders are trying to pass off. i can only hope that the people of her district are paying attention to this!

  • LT (unverified)
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    Any views on the idea requiring the schools budget in 81 days? A friend and I were talking about this and how one legislator had said it was the most important bill and "everyone loves it regardless of their politics".

    I think that statement implies a public debate which I sure haven't heard--anyone else hear it debated?

    My guess is that some public figure going into a townhall meeting and saying "everyone loves this bill" could be pelted by a variety of questions, such as: 1) Oh, so funding for seniors, state police, etc. is less important and they just have to get out of the way for school funding by the 81st day?

    2) So you fund schools on the 81st day and around the 90th day there is a revenue forecast which changes everything--what then?

    3) There are people who say the problems with the school funding debate are lack of well advertised hearings (decisions made by a small group of "leaders" in closed door hearings), snide remarks like Richardson's N. Korea comments (discussed elsewhere on Blue Oregon) and the mentality of "our caucus has decided on a number"--HOW the money is spent is less important than the debate on whether 5.1 beats out 5.5 .

  • ron ledbury (unverified)
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    "the most volatile element" -- or volatile variable in planning for schools is predicting the future of the stock market.

    Not for purposes of taxes but for purposes of covering for the State Treasurer's investment losses.

    I like the idea of having one set of laws for any trustee that invests other people's money. Just imagine if the PERS trust had to live by the same rules that apply to every other trust in Oregon. This is the essence of having laws of general applicability that are in conformity with equal privileges and immunities.

    The right wing advocates of private schools have no incentive to fix our public school descent into PERS-based oblivion.

  • Marvin McConoughey (unverified)
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    Dear Representative Galizio

    I have followed the advice given by the Oregonian and in your guest column “The Minnis Plan for Schools: Not Good Enough,” and provided HB 3460 a careful, serious look. I believe that I conducted a more comprehensive reading of HB 3460 than is reflected in Beverly Perttu’s June 21 Oregonian column, “The House speaker’s plan locks in second rate school funding.”

    Your column will impress most those who know the least about HB 3460. A close reading challenges much of your angst concerning this bill.

    The plan’s funding mechanism is more complex and nuanced than the simple reliance on the income tax emphasized in your column. Though income tax revenues do reflect our personal financial fortunes, the bill does just what prudent citizens do: It controls spending during high-income years to accumulate a source of funds for the down years. In this case, what is good for my neighbor is also good for the education system. While my income, and that of many Oregonians, does fluctuate, I think that most of us do not view our incomes as shaky and unstable.

    It would be unwise for Speaker Minnis or any other leader to base a school funding reform on a stable form of taxes that does not exist. Tax stability is seldom permanent or sufficient, as several states can attest that did rely heavily on property taxes. Oregonians have spoken with exceptional clarity and consistency on the sales tax and that is not a viable option.

    You are not correct that the bill “completely severs the relationship between Oregon’s business community and investment in Oregon’s public schools.” The business community is a principal creator of the jobs that fuel state revenues. When businesses prosper their workers benefit and personal taxes rise. That retains a strong relationship between the business community and spending on Oregon schools.

    Note that HB3460 Section 1, (7) explicitly provides for the legislature to review the percent of personal taxes going to education and the biennial increase of 9 percent for school funding. These are powerful options to increase education funding. Such increases consume funding that would otherwise be used for other purposes. Oregon business taxes remain accessible to the legislature and can be raised as legislators see fit to generate revenue to meet public needs that had been previously met by personal taxes. The legislative revenue officer can explain this and many other possible maneuvers to you.

    Criticisms of the funding source—the personal income tax—relied upon by HB 3460 are misplaced. Speaker Minnis did not create the present heavy state reliance on income taxes. We the people did that for cogent historical reasons. Since every state without exception features ongoing debate about state taxes it is clear that no totally admired tax system exists. As you pointed out in another writing, Oregon has an admirable economic performance. Evidently, our heavy reliance on the personal income tax has not been an economic death knell. Economists have noted that fluctuating economies sometimes correlate with above-average long-term economic performance. Perhaps something of this nature is operative in Oregon.

    The use of income tax for funding is not a structural flaw. It is a very large source of state revenue and I cannot imagine any viable education-funding plan, from any political party, that would not make heavy use of income tax revenues. Can you point to even one viable alternative plan from any source that would omit use of income tax revenues to finance schools?

    You aver, “The plan essentially mandates continued disinvestments in Oregon’s schools.” The theme of disinvestments has existed for so long that one expects to see mammoth declines in teacher benefits and salaries. The figures actually show respectable teacher salaries and rather generous benefits. There are multiple data sources to back up my statement. Section 4 of the bill enables transfer of appropriated revenues exceeding 109 % of the prior year’s appropriation to the Successful Schools Fund and the K-12 Stabilization Account. When excess funding going to the Successful School Fund exceeds 2% of the money going to the State School fund, the excess goes to the State School Fund. Thus, no rigid upper limit exists on how much money can find its way into the education system.

    Recitations of school woes—short year, large class sizes, and reduced teacher positions—have explanations other than revenue insufficiency or over-reliance on the income tax. Oregon has spent an unnecessary amount on teacher benefits and retirements, paid slightly too much on salaries, and paid more for teacher seniority than is justified by increased teacher productivity related to that seniority. At the same time, we have failed to pay according to classroom performance and productivity. These and other education policy errors have been frequently identified with little reform action by the legislature. Neither you nor any other leader has actually provided strong leadership to improve the efficiency of the K-12 education system. Why is that?

    I agree, “Stable inadequacy is neither practical nor desirable.” But our funding is reasonable compared to many other states and might be deemed excessive were the school system to be competently reformed. We have school funding now that creates high levels of citizen content with their local schools, highly praised SAT scores relative to many other states, and economic performance that you have praised. All this coexists with one of the nation’s most generous personnel employee system retirement programs. Apparently education funding has been adequate to a remarkable degree.

    I accepted your urging to read House Bill 3498. It is simplistic and naïve. I have followed the Quality Education Model to which you advert from its first inception when the public was studiously kept in the dark as to specifics and public input was little sought. The model has evolved and I have the latest version, unless a still newer one has been proffered in the last few weeks. The QEM is economic modeling as junk science. Essentially, it is a wish list for educators that relies on data mining to construct a level of recommended funding that would threaten significant distortion in public spending. The same effort in other fields would produce unaffordable highway spending, unaffordable public health spending, and so on. The QEM is a dishonest and reprehensible attempt at public manipulation. Are you surprised that the legislature, which formally adopted it, now shows little interest in complying with it?

    Your reaction to the Minnis Plan is dismaying for several reasons. For one, you are better educated than some legislators and for that reason should be able to achieve better and more balanced comprehension of House Bill 3460. Instead, you wage a mission of destruction against a very promising attempt to meet chronic complaints of funding instability.

    You can, for example, provide recommendations for improvement. No bill is perfect and improvement is certainly possible. Where is your constructive effort?

    If you can’t summon up any support at all, provide a better alternative. House Bill 3498 is a dismal failure. It speaks more to narrow partisanship than to an honest effort to provide a better plan. The same excessive power it would give to the Superintendent of Schools would likely then be sought by other public services.

    It is up to the people of this state, relying in part on our legislators, to establish education spending. The Superintendent of Schools is not the proper place to assign great power over education funding. The position does not foster objectivity and balance.

  • LT (unverified)
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    My major complaint about the Minnis school funding plan is this: she has done so little to "sell" the idea herself.

    Is there any civic group that would have refused her an opportunity to speak had she requested the opportunity? Of course, Minnis would have had to answer questions from people who might not spend every day in the capitol. Is that a problem for her?

    And then the Oregonian wrote that editorial saying that her plan needed several specific fixes if it were to work (rate, starting point, some other things). Minnis could have taken that opportunity to speak to the press and take questions on those suggestions--were there any she would support?

    There is a line in a famous West Wing episode "I don't see a lack of cameras and microphones around here". Which leads me to the conclusion it is less a serious proposal than a ploy to deflect criticism. Some recent Minnis comments lead to cracks that she believes her plan is a magic wand and if it passes no parents or kids will ever come to the capitol again complaining about school funding. Yeah, right.

    Even Republican members who voted for the Minnis plan don't seem to know the answer to specific questions like "But will this make it possible for Mill City HS to repair their leaky roof without laying off teachers?".

    It is time for a serious PUBLIC discussion of school funding. But if the Minnis plan did pass the Senate, there is talk the House would not concur in Sen. ammendments and it would go to conference committee. Cynics say that is just what Minnis wants--a small group she can control. There are also those rumors about the Speaker holding that press conference to unveil the Speaker's Plan with the OSBA and COSA lobbyists on the stage with her BEFORE she presented the plan to her caucus. Why does Minnis distrust anyone she cannot control? With that attitude, why did she enter politics?

    <h2>I believe that a successful school funding plan will come from public town hall style debates with questions and answer sessions allowed. As things stand here at the end of the session, the Senate should not vote for the Speaker's Plan until after the House votes on SB 841, the rainy day fund. There is no reason anyone not a member of the House majority should take that group on faith given their actions this session.</h2>
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