June 6, 2017 — Today, the Joint Committee on Ways and Means approved an $8.2 billion K-12 education budget for the 2017-2019 budget cycle. The budget, which represents an 11.2% increase over the K-12 allocation in the 2015-2017 biennium, is the largest education budget in state history. Yet even with the increased funding, few are celebrating.
We had previously watched as this budget painfully clawed its way out of the Joint Ways and Means Education Subcommittee late last week. There were three members of the subcommittee who did not agree with the appropriation: Rep. Parrish (R-Tualatin/West Linn), Rep. Whisnant (R-Sunriver), and Rep. Hernandez (D-Portland). Rep. Hernandez’s opposition meant that the budget did not have the necessary votes to pass out of committee. However, instead of going back to the drawing board to find a solution we could agree on, majority party Democrats simply replaced Rep. Hernandez with Rep. Nathanson (D-Eugene), who voted in his place to pass the bill out of committee.
What’s interesting about this committee vote, aside from the obvious political maneuvering from the Democratic majority, was that the “no” votes were bipartisan. This is because education is not a partisan issue. The problem isn’t that some are okay with being 47th worst in graduation rates, and some are not. There is not a single legislator in the Capitol who disagrees with the notion that our education system should be functioning for best results, and that our students and our teachers deserve better than what they are being given. We all want the best for our students and teachers, but the current system simply is not working.
Recently, The Oregonian/OregonLive published an editorial
that touched on a few important elements in the conversation around education that deserve to be highlighted. Chief among them was the overwhelming and misplaced assignment of blame. Rep. Smith Warner (D-Portland) argued that Oregon students will receive a year’s less instruction than will Washington students. The feeling of frustration, when we have a booming economy and not enough money to meet the desires of the state, lead her to the conclusion that we have a “broken revenue structure.” As the editorial rightfully pointed out, the National Education Association recently found that Oregon currently outspends Washington by about $2,000 per student. It is also worth mentioning that Oregon is 6th highest in the nation on overall per capita spending at $9,245. The editorial goes on to ask: how do we use that money differently so students get the education Oregonians are paying for?
This is a great question.
Rep. Smith Warner (D) also pointed to the school boards, asserting that they are charged with how the money is spent, rather than the Legislature, and that Oregonians should be looking to them instead. Rep. Parrish then reminded the committee that state interference often prohibits any real action from school boards to save money or to be more effective with their resources.
Her statement echoed a comment from a previous hearing this year in the Higher Education Committee. Rep. Whisnant asked Oregon State University President, Ed Ray, what the higher education presidents are doing to address major cost drivers. President Ray answered, “We don’t control the cost drivers. 70% of our costs are people. When we were allowed to have our own individual boards we were told, ‘You will stay in PEBB, you will stay in PERS, and you will negotiate as a group with SEIU.’ We had no latitude to do anything about what are, in fact, the main cost drivers that we face.” I think this statement by President Ed Ray speaks volumes as to who really runs the state. When you follow the money trail, the public unions are the largest contributors to the Democratic Party campaign funds.
What we are seeing across the board in K-12 education, higher education, business, and beyond, are ever increasing mandates from the legislature on how they are to operate. This is complicated by an out of control public employee pension system that is going to continue to force massive cost increases well into the future. To put the blame anywhere but at the feet of the Legislature is irresponsible and unacceptable. We have been operating our state on ideals without any real plan on how to pay for them, fundamentally missing or, more likely, entirely ignoring that these things come at a massive cost. Without proper planning and budgeting, Oregonians will continue to pay a steep price. It would seem, with an over 30% increase in state revenue over the last six years that we should not be short on money. Yet, year after good year, rather than saving excess revenue, Democrats used it to create new programs and grow our bloated bureaucracy. This outcome was predicted when we first started outpacing our revenue with our spending, and we did nothing. We are simply watching it come to fruition today. Again, I will go back to Senator Devlin’s comment at the beginning of the session when he said, “The scope of what we think we should provide we find we cannot afford.” When it comes to the budget, the buck stops with lawmakers.
Investing in education is critical to the future of our state. More allocation of dollars to education would be well worth it if we could count on that money getting to the classrooms, to the students, and to provide better outcomes. But, when we outspend nearby states by thousands per student, continue to cut programs and teachers, and then lag sorely behind in graduation rates, it does not logically follow that pumping more money into the same system is the answer. We won’t feel any better in the next biennium if we produce the same outcome and continue in our search for more revenue because we didn’t manage the taxpayers’ dollars well.