By editorial board • 

Don’t leave higher ed behind in a rush to better fund K-12

Oregon’s dominant Democrats have been sounding the alarm about the future of K-12 school funding since Nov. 8.

On that day, their widely ballyhooed revenue plan died at the hands of voters, who saw it for what it was — an attempt to pick consumer pockets by slapping a thinly disguised sales tax on Oregon’s largest and most successful enterprises. They had no Plan B, and the rebuff left them with a nearly $2 billion deficit to fill.

But what of K-12’s elder stepchild, Oregon’s chronically underfunded state college system? Hardly a whimper, even from ground zero in Portland, Eugene and Corvallis.

It’s not hard to discern the reason. The union representing K-12 teachers provides the money and manpower that propels Democrats into office, but it has no counterpart at the collegiate level.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to discern the result either.

The University of Oregon responded earlier this week by announcing a 10.6 percent tuition hike, serving to add $965 to the annual tab, and other state schools have little choice but to follow suit. What’s more, incoming freshmen face the prospect of having to absorb similar hikes every year of a four- or five-year tenure, on top of soaring costs for room, board, books, transportation and other necessities.

We are thus serving to saddle an entire generation with almost insurmountable student loan burdens. An infusion of new state funding is desperately needed, but so far this century, we have been heading inexorably the other direction.

Adjusted for inflation, the decline now exceeds 50 percent. And taking up the slack falls largely to tuition, which has risen a compensating 43 percent.

Tuition now accounts for 66.9 percent of state system support, compared to 21.4 percent for legislative funding and 11.7 for gifts, grants and other sources. If the disparity grows much larger, we’ll have erased the only meaningful distinction between private and public institutions.

State bond support for campus construction has also become increasingly restrictive, to the point it is severely hampering development of a branch campus to serve fast-growing Central Oregon. We have not been able to provide the K-12 system with everything we would like, but it’s gotten Cadillac treatment compared to its college counterpart, which is equally vital to preparing the next generation for successful entry into an increasingly demanding workforce.

The seven campuses are seeking a $100 million boost in the backsliding allocation recommended by Gov. Kate Brown, and that seems eminently reasonable from here.

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