With the Big Rock in play - Let the Games Begin

Paul Evans

In many ways the monies we allocate for education reflect our values; societies that value education and workforce training initiatives fund them – societies that do not value these things do not. We have rested upon past accomplishment long enough; we must rekindle the spirit of intergenerational progress: we must remind generations present and future of how we are all interdependent upon mutual success.

Yesterday the Legislative Co-Chairs presented their budget to peers and the public. Now that the document (and the thinking underlying it) is “out,” the sausage-making can begin in earnest. The biggest “winner” is K-12 education; the biggest “loser” is anything that is not K-12 education – the message was clear, unequivocal.

In such moments it is always helpful to remind ourselves that K-12 education wasn’t always the “big rock” in the pile. There are a few of us that remember, fondly, the days before Darth Sizemore and Gran Moff McIntyre gave us Ballot Measure 5 – and the follow-on Ballot Measure 47/50.

Taken together these ballot-passed initiatives transformed our relationship to local governance; cities, counties, schools, and special districts became increasingly more dependent upon the General Fund budget.

The once insane notion of pitting schools against prisons, jobs against the environment, of forcing 90 legislators to become a de facto “super-school board” in addition to their other legislative responsibilities – is now our reality.

Government is neither inherently bad nor good, it is a reflection of our public conscience - it is a mutual enterprise that does those things that private industry cannot, or should not do. Government done well is an investment with both near-term and far-term dividends.

Sadly, we live in a time when government - and the men and women that spend a career providing services to our nation, state, and communities - is often seen as a negative. Government in 2013 appears to be something that must be condemned and controlled: it is a dragon to be slain - a ravenous beast that consumes far more than it delivers.

And yet, many of the people that condemn government the loudest are dependent upon its policies and programs the most. It is an irony that mystifies me still.

The foundation of a successful society is a public education. And such an education brings us full circle: to the arguments involved with increasing the K-12 enterprise within a zero-sum budget environment.

Even though it doesn’t have to be this way – we could always amend the property tax structure again – it is likely that we will be sustaining our K-12 education programming this way for the foreseeable future.

For good or ill, it would take a heaping full of courage for a Legislative Body to consider (much less implement) the structural and systemic change necessary – at a time where courage to do the right thing is too often punished by an electorate trained to favor near-instant gratification.

There is a fine line between courage and crazy; it is a line that is best crossed at the right moment, for the right outcome.

After reviewing the available material associated with both the Governor’s Budget and the Co-Chair’s Budget, it appears that the magic number for K-12 will end up between $6.15 Billion and $6.75 Billion: the differences may be much smaller once we settle upon a plan for PERS reform, tax code restructuring, and other associated “cost savings” efforts now underway.

Although the final number is anyone’s guess (often a parlor game for political junkies), it will likely be close to something around $6.60 Billion, with “wrap-around” savings netting an additional $100-150 Million in theoretical savings (for reinvestment in education related activities). Whatever the case, it promises to be a fast, furious fight for a significant increase in funding to support the restructured K-12 enterprise.

As a former school board member – and current classroom instructor (at a local community college) – I believe education is the most critical investment a society can make. Truth be told, I think the figure should be far more than the numbers in play: we built a Quality Education Model but have yet to implement it as required.

We will not, indeed cannot, return to a natural resources manufacturing economy. The world has grown too dependent upon cheap labor and near-sighted environmental stewardship. However, with the right strategy we can - and must - develop the most creative, innovative, and productive cohort of workers in human history. This will require more than money, but it will require more money too.

In many ways the monies we allocate for education reflect our values; societies that value education and workforce training initiatives fund them – societies that do not value these things do not. We have rested upon past accomplishment long enough; we must rekindle the spirit of intergenerational progress: we must remind generations present and future of how we are all interdependent upon mutual success.

I hope that the folks recommending the restructuring of our post-secondary education/training enterprise receive the political support required to make it a success. It may prove a harder lift than originally conceived. For the politics associated with this restructure are at least as dynamic as the K-12 restructure because of the 17 community college districts throughout the state, each with its own taxing authorities.

However, the State of Oregon has a full plate. Education and workforce training are critical for our present economic straits as well as future economic vitality. But we have far more responsibilities than just these. Oregon – the State – is responsible for protecting our citizens, sustaining our business climate, reintegrating our veterans, defending our air, lands, and waterways, in addition to preparing our citizens for the workplace of today – and tomorrow.

This next chapter of the Legislative Cycle – the battle for the General Funds Budget – is the most intriguing. Few can claim that it is fun, but all know it is an essential part of the “game.” We have a fixed endgame (July) and the players are now fully engaged. Soon the broad outlines of a public statement of our values (final budget document) will be shaped, reshaped, and cast.

Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their communities; now is the time to fight for the priorities you believe in most – for there is precious little time for impacting the onward roll of a budget train headed for its destination.

For those interested in making good public policy, the next month will be the most important of the Legislative Session. For those invested in making progress – the hard work begins today.

Let the games begin – good governance really is a participatory enterprise.

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