There are plenty of dire phrases and words floating around among parents these days: “Beyond frustrated,” “sickened,” “horrified,” “heartbroken,” and more. Many of these parents are like me – we volunteer for schools, we have worked on political campaigns that promise some part of a solution, and we have worked to figure out supplementary activities for our kids as schools face cuts. We’ve been doing this for years. And years. This latest round of budget cuts, however, has pushed us too far. We’re done. Over it. That’s it.
Part of my volunteer work has been serving as the president of the PTSA at my children’s school. It used to be that PTSA’s simply supported enrichment activities– field trips, more books for the library, perhaps some guest speakers or new sports equipment. The fun stuff. Now, however, I’m not the only PTSA president who is frantically shifting money and helping organize fundraising activities in their school simply to pay for the basics, the fundamentals of having, you know, a qualified teacher in a classroom with my children.
While I’m happy to do this, I certainly realize it’s not a true solution. We’re simply applying a band aid to a broken structure that is on the brink of failure. When I was in high school in Oregon, we ranked near the top in statewide funding for educational systems. Now, a couple of decades later, we rank 44th in funding, 49th in average classroom size, and have one of the shortest school years in the nation.
Many of us know why we’re here. In the 1990’s, Oregonians voted for a series of property tax measures that severely restricted the amount of money school districts could raise. At the same time, these measures plopped most of the responsibility for funding education into the State’s general fund, forcing schools to compete with social services, parks, public safety and more in a sort of “who is the most needy” celebrity death match. Not really the best way to serve our state, wouldn’t you agree?
Ironically, since then, many families have most likely paid more in school fundraisers, day care and supplementary activities than they ever would have in property taxes.
That isn’t, however, the whole story.
When times are bad, Oregon’s notoriously volatile tax system crashes, forcing budget cuts for all essential government services back to a bare bones level. But when the good times roll, it’s hard to reinvest in our state due to the kicker. We can’t pump money back where it belongs because the law requires that the “surplus” go to individual and corporate tax payers, meaning that while we each have a bit of money in our own pockets, we collectively never really get ahead.
But there’s more. In 1994, Oregonians also passed Measure 11, a mandatory minimum sentencing law, one of the results of which is that spending for prisons is going up more than spending for schools. At the same time, services that might provide for real criminal justice reform – mental health services, addiction interventions, job training, oh, and of course, schools, have been slashed, meaning that prisons will only grow. This is arguably the worst investment we can make in our future.
We need a real, true, lasting solution. We need property tax reform. We need reform to our criminal justice system. We need kicker reform.
Luckily, some folks are talking about it. Our Oregon is working to put a measure on the ballot reforming the corporate kicker. A few brave folks in the legislature (boy, do we need more of them) have taken on changing some of the ways the property tax laws have functioned. These are small but very important steps.
The word from state legislators, however, is that they haven’t heard much from constituents and until they do, there’s no incentive to tackle fundamental tax reform. So we need more people talking and doing the hard work of engaging in change. Local jurisdictions and citizens need to let state decision makers know that the current funding system has brought public education to the breaking point. We all need to let them know that we have no more patience for conversations that don’t address the core problems. We all deserve more.