What the Fight Over PE Tells Us

Jeff Alworth

What the Fight Over PE Tells Us

There's a famous drawing by MC Escher that shows a staircase apparently descending, but the bottom end loops around to the original starting place. It looks good, but it doesn't work in the real world. This is an excellent metaphor for what's happening with Oregon's budget, and the current flap about whether to cut physical education in elementary schools to patch the perpetually gaping budget hole serves as a perfect case in point. No one wants to cut PE, and everyone recognizes its benefit. Yet no one wants to raise taxes, either, or cut other programs, so here we come around again to where we started: wanting to keep taxes low but still fund state programs.

The greatest incoherence comes from the right, and I'm going to pick on Chris Dudley for a minute, because his position on this issue is so starkly perverse. As a former professional athlete, it's no surprise he considers PE sacrosanct. Fair enough. But Dudley also thinks the budget is out of control. So now we start descending the stairs:

A state budget that grows 13% every two years (as it has averaged in Oregon the past 20 years) is not only financially unsustainable but is driving the demand for higher taxes – higher taxes that make Oregon less competitive economically and hurt the private sector job growth essential to our quality of life.

Not only does he think we need to reign in spending, but he thinks we need to cut taxes--and so we go further down, down, down:

Chris Dudley believes taxes in Oregon are too high and our tax rates make the state less economically competitive, less attractive to entrepreneurs and start-up businesses and a drag on private sector job growth which is essential to our quality of life.

Of course, these two flights of descending stairs lead to one conclusion, right? We know that, since K-12 occupies by far the largest chunk of the state budget--40%, or 52% when you include all other education spending (see .pdf for numbers)--cutting spending and cutting revenues means cutting school programs like PE. Yet when Dudley arrives at this reality, like the Escher staircase, he tries to bend physics and keep going ahead.

Republicans are the most egregious in using Escherian politics to defer tough decisions. Unfunded wars, unfunded Medicare benefits, unfunded tax cuts. Locally, the patchwork of ballot initiatives tell a similar story--large tax encumbrances on the one hand for prisons, tax measures to reduce revenue on the other. But Democrats aren't blameless. They have failed to call Republicans out on these tactics, and are still spooked by the idea of raising taxes. It is an enormous credit to the Democrats that they managed to get Measures 66 and 67 through, but the political cost for making them permanent--even in the midst of billion dollar shortfalls that stretch out as far as economists can see!--may have been too high.

Which brings us to the voters, perhaps the most culpable of all. Voters want everything. They want PE and music classes and cheap college tuition and good roads and lots of cops and services to take care of the poor, but above all, they want low taxes. They punish politicians who tell them the truth in favor of the Escherians, like Dudley. (Who can forget the famous tea partier holding a sign demanding that the government keep its hands of his Medicare?)

Parents railed for two hours against cutting PE at a public forum. John Canzano, no stranger to sanctimony, echoed their sentiments: "Cut PE? Find another way, people."

Other ways? Sure, raise taxes. But you can't keep taxes low and still hope to keep service levels high. I wonder, though, will voters choose the candidate who tells them the truth, or someone like Chris Dudley, who says they can have PE, better schools, and a tax cut to boot? Why do I fear the latter?

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    When did PE start costing money in grade schools. Back in the day, I can recall only a handful of times when we had "formal" PE in grade school. A couple of times a week, our teacher would have an organized group activity, the rest of the time, it was called recess.

    Football, basketball, dodgeball, or just plain running around the yard like little kids tend to do.

    What happened?

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    Jeff, The thing that makes the Rep. hype possible is that Dem's fail to address what many of us see as a real problem with the sustainability of State services. Public employee compensation. Particulalry PERS.

    When the economy sinks, PERS loses money, meaning more assessments to government budgets for PERS contributions and at the same time general tax revenues decrease. A doube whammy.

    It's a pretty easy sell to taxpayer whose job may be in jeapordy, and who pays for their own health insurnace and has a modest retirement, that they shouldn't have to pay even more in taxes so that we can put more money into PERS

    So we have the republicans saying no new taxes, and services to children and the needy suffer. And we have Demo's who say no change to public employee compensation reform, and the children and the needy suffer.

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    Rob, sure, PERS is an issue. It will cost an additional $368 million by the end of the next biennium. But servicing our debt over that same period will cost $247 million. I have yet to see a single mention of this in the press or by our leaders. PERS is a problem the state got into EXACTLY for the reasons I describe. Using short-term thinking, they gave a large, long-term commitment to save a small, short-term increase. Oregonians may be pissed that this obligation exists, but it have very little to do with Oregon's budget problems.

    But demagogues will continue to demonize it to rile up voters so they're distracted from the much bigger issue that they don't have the will to address. PERS is a bete noir; it's not the problem.

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      Jeff. I understand that changing PERS won't balance the budget. My point is, it is part of the solution, and the failure of D's to adequately address it gives voters a reason to vote against any tax reform/increase. And I'd take issue with your characterization that PERS problem was a result of short term thinking. I assume you're talking about the PERS pickup in exchange for wage increases in the 1980's. Thats definitely a part of the problem, but PERS problems are not only related to that. There is also the guaranteed payout, the annual PERS board approved payouts in excess of that required by law for many years. That wasn't a one time thing. It was public employee dominated PERS board voting annual increases equal to either the 8% required, or the actual amount earned, whichever was higher. I agree its a pickle.

      And, while I had to look up bete noir, I think thats an apt description in some ways of the PERS issue and I'd like to take it away from the R's by seeing the D's take some action on PERS reform and Tax reform simultaneously.

      Look, I know that my swimming pool loses water by evaporation and splashing around and needs to be topped off regularly. But if my swimming pool has a crack and leaks, I'm surely going to reapir the leak before I fill it up again. I think thats all voters expect. fix the PERS leak, and lets go about filling the pool up adequately.

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        Rob, I think we probably agree on the policy here--though I question the politics of focusing on PERS. The reason that's such a popular talking point is because it allows the Rs to demonize state workers. While the policy needs to be addressed, focusing on it to the exclusion of other issues--or to the more important exclusion of the big discussion about taxes and services--isn't something I think Ds should sign on to.

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          I think you're probably correct that we agree on policy, and disagree on the politics. But when you say that its a popular talking point because it allows the R's to demonize state workers, thats exactly the point. Why let them have that talking point.

          When Pres. Obama, in that open conversation on medical reform, and costs said, "absolutely, lets put tort reform on the table". the R's could have crapped their pants.

          What if the D's said, yes, lets talk about reforming public employee compensation AND how we raise money AND tax expenditures.

          And, the D's don't have to demonize public employees. We believe in fair market rate compensation,including fair benefits. This could possibly result in an increase in salaries and a decrease in benefits. But that should attract better younger employees to the public work force, who are more interested in a decent salary rather than family medical and a retirement 30 years off.

          I don't believe the D's refusal to discuss PERS has anything to do with political strategy. I think the reason is that the OEA adamantly opposes any change to PERS and it has the D leaders so scared that they don't dare address the issue. Look at the thanks given to former Rep. McPherson and Gov K. when they made a modest repair to PERS.

          If a major stumbling block to overall reform is people's refusal at paying more taxes in light of PERS (Which I think you admit is a potent political weapoon) How exactly can a progressive justify defending the extraordinarily high level of public employee benefits at the expense of schools and the vulnerable poor.

          So D leaders and candidates can decide to not address the PERS problem and protect themselves within the party, but by doing so, they lose the ability to address some overarching problems and in the eyes of moderate voters they look little better than the R's who fight to protect low tax rates on businesses at the expense of the needy and our kids.

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    Jeff, I agree. I especially agree that it comes down to voters being more informed on the budget choices before us, which are really choices about what kind of future we want.

    I thought, at the national level, that Senator Wyden showed some political courage recently in calling for military budget cuts as part of any deficit reduction package (see my post here. I agree with him completely. Nationally, we need to shift resource from military to domestic programs like education.

    Again at the national level, we Democrats have been fiscally irresponsible and politically insensitive in continuing “earmarks” in any shape or form. The practice should end on our watch now.

    At the state level, Oregon needs to spend more on education. It’s our best investment for the future. But there are parts of the Democratic coalition which, from my perspective, are very resistant to educational change, whether to make the system more cost efficient (like online education) or better (like Mandarin and other foreign language immersion programs and/or a high school study abroad program). It can be hard to argue for more investments in a cost inefficient, second-rate system.

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    Jeff, I really like your analogy with the Escher staircase. Dudley leaves himself exposed to this for his overall budget policy since his platform can be summarized by: cut taxes, cut spending, increase support for education. Same as virtually every Republican since Reagan.

    Same for the Oregonian. Their editorial on Sunday telling the candidates that they needed to stand up and say where they stood on the Kulongski re-visioning proposals was long on describing the problems and choices, non-existent when it came to outlining the Oregonian's own hard decisions.

    As an aside,I agree with Michael P. that I never had PE instructors in elementary school and found them useless when they showed up in higher grades. I got plenty of excercise at school playing dodgeball in the winter or playing on the playground during the nice weather days. When the PE guy showed up in middle school I got less exercise because they attempted to teach us sports that we already had learned from older friends and in the 20 minutes left after attendence, instructions, whatever, there was only time for one or two attempts per basket or pitch per person. Stand around and watch. What a waste.

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      cut taxes, cut spending, increase support for education

      Well, actually I'd note that he wants to increase support for education, increase support for prisons, cut taxes, and I'd label the last item "cut" spending -- as in he's going to claim he wants to cut spending without actually proposing any actual cuts.

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    If people are unwilling to fund services through the traditional government forms, maybe we need to find alternatives. Technology makes it easy for individuals with common interests to coordinate action, how about letting interest groups facilitate their own services? I'm thinking of organizations in between private entities and statutory government, Ostrom units so to speak.

    For schools, you can see them in action in the form of aggresive school foundations like at Riverdale. The foundation normalizes donations, giving parents assurance that fellow community members will make the same voluntary sacrifice. People may discount that example as Riverdale generally speaking is rich, but we don't need big dollars to make a big difference at PPS. The $19.4 M in cuts works out to $412 per student. I think many families would pay that if they thought it would do good, but without a coordinating body to give such assurance people sit on their checkbooks.

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      BJ, you can donate to the Portland Public Schools Foundation right here.

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        I can, but my point is that in the absence of any assurance that other parents will donate in likewise fashion I have little reason to do so. $412 by itself won't make a measurable difference. $412 for every child erases a 19.4M deficit.

        That is what a strong foundation can do- normalize donations, creating an expectation among parents that everyone is making an equal contribution that will have a measurable impact on school quality. From what I've seen the Portland School Foundation has not come close. They have been all but invisible so far in this crisis.

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    cutting music & arts from the curriculum worked so very well. obviously, cutting PE will add to that fine legacy.

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      Thank you, TA.

      Canzano is an idiot. The whole articlenis a riff on how the Blazers need a GM and therefore kids need PE.

      Where was John when music and arts were cut? PPS hasn't had competitive sports in middle school for a long time.

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    Jeff, the PE discussion is a RED HERRING.

    1) Do you have any idea of the TOTAL taxes that Oregonians pay? If so PLEASE POST the numbers.

    2) Do you have any idea of the TOTAL COST of one student in our public schools? If so POST the numbers. (I've heard that it's over $6,000 per student)

    Let the schools superintendent fix his/her own problems. They have a budget, that's life, deal with it. Everyone has a budget. :)

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      Jason, if you follow the link to the PDF, you'll find scads of good data.

      Your view is consistent: let services whither rather than raise taxes. No Escherian bamboozling there. Too bad Republicans lack your candor.

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    Jason, PPS may have a budget but the public can not see it in any detail which would allow a person to make a decision on what better to cut than PE or whatever. So, in a very real way, a discussion over the PPS budget in terms of what to cut is pretty rediculuous.

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    Honestly I don't give a flying f- about Dudley on this issue. This goes way beyond the current campaign. As jeff notes, public schools in this state have been bleeding for 20 years.

    Give us back the local property tax option. Any good GOP candidate should support the right of a local jurisdiction to raise or lower their own taxes via a popular vote.

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    Chris Dudley, trying to sell himself as a different kind of Republican, yet living in the same fantasyland where stuff is free.

    His own charitable organization is running on "deficit spending". Why should we expect anything different if he's Governor?

    And on top of it, he wants to privatize liquor sales. Red meat to the dopes in order to get their vote. Yet, that is more revenue lost and would add 30% to the state's debt. Take a lesson from this ex-Californian: Schwartzenegger's (and the state's) fiscal troubles began when he lowered the car registration fees. People voted for him for an emotional reason (some college students voted for him because they wanted his signature on their diplomas - sad irony, some can't even finish school and GET their diplomas) and it's now come to the point where he wants to cut people off of State-run welfare programs and de-fund programs that do check-ins on Seniors. IS THIS WHAT WE WANT FOR OREGON????

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      Sonya, please explain how privitizing liqour sales and folding OLCC adds 30% to oregon's debt. Sell the state warehouses, get rid of 210 state employees and allow retail sales of liqour while maintaiing the existing taxes would ADD revenue to Oregon.

      Of course I learned math in SC, so please show me how shedding employees, selling real estate and maintaining the tax is a money deficit move.

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      I'm definitely with Kurt on this one. Where do these numbers come from. The OLCC generates some revenue, but it's like $120 million--hardly 30%. (And I don't think you'd lose all that revenue in any case.) Source, please.

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