How the "New Normal" is Failing Oregon's Public Schools

Kyle Curtis Facebook

The concept of "making do with less" in the public sector has a negative impact on the state's public schools. But are the anti-democratic tactics used by proponents of education reform the right way to go?

How the "New Normal" is Failing Oregon's Public Schools

The economic recession of the past few years has resulted in a “new normal” mindset which expects that the level of production of goods and services provided by the public sector be maintained regardless of diminished resources—“to make do with less,” in other words. Clearly, there is less available to “make do” with, which should be an expected outcome considering that $22 trillion of the U.S. economy disappeared due to the financial crisis caused by the burst of the housing bubble.

Our consumer-driven economy is reliant on fluidity: if people quit spending and the exchanging of money ceases or slows down, the wheels of economic activity grind to a halt. This was the outcome, more or less, in response to the Wall Street meltdown that occurred in the fall of 2008, mitigated to a degree by the much-despised bailouts that were then followed by Obama’s stimulus package. Certainly, the lack of consumer spending frustrates the ability of business owners to move inventory and meet fiscal projections, especially those that own small, independent, non-franchised businesses that fail to have the security of a larger corporate brand. However, a severe economic wind-down arguably wreaks more havoc on the public sector, where funding is intrinsically connected to the health of the overall economy. The services that see an increased demand and that are needed the most during a recession are the same ones facing reduced revenues and, as a result, funding levels for institutions such as public schools becomes very vulnerable and unstable.

This all seems very Econ 101-ish, I’m sure. But consider for a moment: The past few years there has been a repeated mantra--as if in hopes that the result in some sort of hypnotic trance that finds an austere economic agenda appealing and acceptable—that the “reckless, unsustainable government spending” needs to be reduced. However, those who repeat this mantra never provide an alternative level of spending that would guarantee an acceptable level of service provided with public funds, but instead at a level that solely matches incoming revenues. If these revenues are to drastically decrease, then—according to this line of thinking—the funding levels for public services should be reduced drastically as well, with the unintended results of this slashed funding be damned. Critics of public spending point to the private sector to provide models of financial restraint which ensures that spending levels match collected revenues. As nearly every school district in Oregon faces a budget crisis to some extent, the only options available are either to reduce spending—via layoffs of teachers and support staff, or cancellation of “non-vital” programs such as art and music—or increase revenues, by convincing voters to pass local bond measures. However, it should be reminded that the spending level is never determined by what would provide a high-quality education for every child in Oregon, but instead to match the decreased revenues brought about by the economic recession. In effect, “making do with less.”

Let’s pause briefly to recap how schools are funded in Oregon. Funding for school districts are derived from the Oregon Common School Fund—which is derived from state income taxes and lottery dollars—and local revenues, i.e. property taxes and local option levees. As such, these dominant funding mechanisms are heavily reliant on a healthy economy that is humming along and generating tax revenues. Of course, two amendments in the state’s Constitution have a tremendous impact on the amount and availability of school funding, regardless of economic activity. Measure 5, passed in 1990, created a constitutional property tax limitation, resulting in transferring responsibility for school funding from local property tax payers to the state legislature. As a result, school funding now compromises over half of the state’s revenues. In 2002, the Education Stability Fund was written into the Constitution, designating lottery funds to serve as a “buffer” to protect school funding during down economic times. Despite its intended usage, the ESF has also been used to balance state budget shortfalls, filling in gaps during both the 2009-11 and 2011-13 biennium. Regardless—or because of—these constitutional amendments, Oregon has one of the largest average class sizes and shortest school years in the country.

As such, the efforts to provide quality education for all of Oregon’s children are constrained by both external economic influences and internal constitutional mandates, resulting in badly-stretched public coffers that perennially face budget crises. It is due to this situation of funding chaos and confusion that the proponents of education reform insert themselves into the policy discussion, appealing to state legislators with promises of models derived from the private sector that will provide relief from the ever-increasing budgetary burden placed by public education. The intervention of the private sector into the education industry shouldn’t be much of a surprise—we are, after all, talking about roughly half of the state’s budget at stake, translating to $7.4 billion in the Governor's 2011-13 budget. Certainly, an effort to provide accountability and oversight is both welcome and appropriate, but the most troubling aspect of the education reform movement is the anti-democratic process in which the reform proponents pursue this agenda. In fact, evidence of the past few years indicates that this movement results in a reformist message that is anti-democratic in nature, in effect teaching kids to distrust and hold in contempt one of the most basic democratic institutions: their public schools.

This is the first in a series that examines the efforts taken by the proponents of education "reform" who seek to gain profits through a market-driven privatization of our public education system. Future pieces will examine more closely the anti-democratic, scorched-earth tactics used by those behind the education "reform" movement and targeting teacher tenure to allow for mass layoffs while also pursuing public funds to subsidize private charter schools, creating a barrier to the equal access of education. Finally, this series will profile the major players currently invovled with the education "reform" effort in Oregon, including the individuals and organizations fighting to ensure quality schools for the state's students but also legislation currently proposed in Salem that will have an impact on public education. And, of course, resources will be provided, including the contact information of organizations, phone numbers of lawmakers' offices, and other related information.*

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