Advocates push for more school spending

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Advocates push for more school spending

Published 5:57 p.m. PT March 13, 2017 | Updated 10:01 a.m. PT March 14, 2017

Advocates for boosting education funding took center stage at the Capitol on Monday, arguing through polling and voting results that Oregonians want more money spent on schools.

The current K-12 state budget is $7.4 billion. While proposed budgets for the upcoming biennium — including the co-chairs budget of $7.8 billion, the Governor’s budget of $8 billion, and the Oregon School Board’s $8.4 billion — would maintain current services for K-12 education, and in some cases expand services, it isn’t clear how much the legislature will approve or exactly how it will be used.

The Oregon School Boards Association used poll results to push for more funding. More than 90 percent of Oregonians see K-12 public education as a top funding priority facing the state legislature and more than 60 percent support raising business taxes to avoid cutting school budgets, according to the poll.

The state is currently facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall for the 2017-19 biennium.

“Our state’s voters are looking for leadership on the issue of revenue reform,” said Jim Green, executive director of the association. “We all know that taxes are always a tough subject for legislators, but for nearly a decade we’ve been balancing the state budget on the backs of our students. Our young people need better from us.”

Green said Oregon’s economy is good, yet large cuts are being made concerning education. “This makes no sense to me,” he said.

Oregon’s expenses per student in 2015-16 were $11,242, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

This past fall, voters approved Measure 98, which calls for spending $800 per high school student annually on career technical education, college-level classes, or drop-out prevention programs.

According to proponents of the measure, these opportunities for students will help raise the state’s graduation rate, which currently at 74.8 percent is still third worst in the country.

“Voters made themselves clear last November,” said Toya Fick, executive director of Stand for Children Oregon. “Now it’s up to the legislature to turn this support into new opportunities for Oregon’s high school students.”

Measure 98 passed by almost a 2-to-1 margin, with more than 1.2 million voters supporting the measure. As a statute and not a change to the state’s constitution, the legislature can change the amount of money allocated and/or how the funds are implemented.

For instance, the measure designates funds to high school students due to the dropoff in performance in national assessments occurring after eighth grade. If the legislature wanted, they could vote to expand it to lower grades, though some proponents of the measure said this “waters down” the measure and that it wouldn’t be what the voters asked for.

If the legislature does not approve the amount voters wanted, other options may be considered, such as an increased tax on beer or tobacco to help pay the difference.

The Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee has been holding public hearings across the state for the past month, with the final hearing coming up Thursday at the Capitol.

Considering this input, the subcommittees will continue to hear from agencies before they recommend a budget to the full committee. A revenue forecast is expected in May, which, along with any tax increases, could impact the proposed budgets.

The Oregon State Legislature is scheduled to end its session by July 10.

Since state funding for education is determined every other year, school boards operate at the start of each biennium under a veil of uncertainty, said Jay Remy, a spokesperson for the Salem-Keizer School District.

But while boards are familiar with picking a number to start working with on the budget long before the legislature decides, Remy said that isn’t ideal. This is especially true knowing the largest section of school budgets concerns the people they employ — will they have to fire or be able to hire?

Contact Natalie at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.

By the numbers

*This would maintain current levels of teachers and programs.

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