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To improve Oregon schools, block that kick

Betsy Hammond’s reporting in the Oregonian last week (“Underachieving Oregon: Schools perform in bottom third nationally”) is a must-read for all Oregonians. The article (first in a three-part series) shares an in-depth analysis by the paper of our nation’s schools. The analysis was done by measuring achievement scores and graduation rates in all 50 states, adjusting for socioeconomic factors such as race, family income and rates of education among parents.

The not-so-surprising conclusion: While Oregon schools rank 38th in the nation for performance, they also rank 39th for student spending, as adjusted for inflation.

Turns out you really do get what you pay for.

Oregon’s volatile tax structure, including over-reliance on personal income tax, shoulders much of the blame. Property and sales taxes are known to be far more stable sources of funding for education, but they are severely limited or nonexistent in Oregon. When the economy gets a hiccup, Oregon gets pneumonia. Education is the largest use of the General Fund by far, and bears the scars of decades of cuts.

Making a bad situation worse, the kicker law prevents Oregon from putting any money in reserve. In the case of an improving economy (like now) revenues are coming in higher than state economists forecast back in the 2013 legislative session. The prudent thing to do would be to put that money aside, especially in light of the recent Oregon State Supreme Court decision reversing the majority of PERS reform measures. By some estimates, the impact will be $5 billion statewide over the next 20 years; the impact on education funding is expected to be around half of that amount, beginning in 2017.

But Oregon’s kicker law requires all those unanticipated revenues be returned to taxpayers.

The last time personal kicker checks were sent out to Oregonians, huge cuts to education followed; cuts that could have been significantly mitigated had we only put those dollars in reserve.

It’s not hard to see the impact of those cuts in Hammond’s article: “From 2007 to 2012, Oregon schools cut 3,600 teaching positions, or 12 percent, while enrollment grew 4 percent,” resulting in “a staggering 40 percent more students than the national average” for a typical Oregon teacher. When my son was in third grade at Jacksonville Elementary School, he shared a classroom with 28 other students, in a space that was designed to hold about 22. It was crowded, noisy and difficult to manage. Today, in the very same classroom, there are 33. Mrs. Schubert is the best of the best, but there are limits to what one teacher can accomplish with 33 8-year-olds.

Representative Tobias Read has introduced HB 3555, which would block the personal kicker. There is precedent; a similar vote was taken to divert the last corporate kicker before it was permanently amended by voter referendum. The personal kicker has been suspended previously too, but not since the Oregon Constitution was changed in 2000. Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sen. Alan Bates. D-Medford, have stated publicly they would support such a vote. But it will take bipartisan support (Democrats and Republicans) in the House and Senate to meet the supermajority (two-thirds of the Legislature) requirement.

You can help. Visit www.blockthekick.com. Sign the petition. Find out who your representatives are, and how to contact them. Contact other representatives around the state.

Together, we can make a difference.

Karen Starchvick of Jacksonville is the former chairwoman of Stand for Children Jackson County and Medford School Board member-elect.