By editorial board • 

Less than meets the eye in massive K-12 package

In almost apocalyptic terms, Democrats are applauding a measure infusing another $2 billion a biennium into Oregon’s public school system.

They term it a milestone, a landmark, a watershed, a development of historic proportions. And thanks to supermajorities attained this year in both chambers, they were able to accomplish it without a single Republican vote.

Count us significantly less enthused.

Oregon records one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates and shortest school years. It has one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios and chronic absenteeism rates. A recent national assessment reflected others in ranking Oregon’s school system 43rd, below Arkansas and West Virginia, and just above Alabama and Mississippi. 

Granted, Oregon also trails the national average in per-student spending. However, it’s not only outspending neighboring California, Washington, Idaho and Nevada, but also such large, high-profile states as Colorado, Texas and Florida.

There is one area where Oregon ranks near the top, of course — teacher pay and benefits. According to the National Education Association, its annual teacher salary ranked 13th nationally in the 2016-17 school year, at $61,900. Plus it boasts a lavish pension system unique in requiring no employee contribution whatsoever.

We have several serious reservations.

First, we fear much of the additional $2 billion will, by necessity, be spent on shoring up the K-12 portion of the state’s unsustainably over-generous Public Employees Retirement System.

We would prefer to see the Legislature plug loopholes, stem abuses and curb costs going forward than infuse the system with billions or additional tax dollars. And we would prefer to see it also offering relief to cities, counties, colleges and other public agencies, not just K-12 schools.

Democrats are now addressing PERS bloat for the first time in years, but seem to be leaning more toward accounting gimmicks than real substance. We’ll have to see what emerges, but aren’t optimistic, given the fact that public employee union backing is what gave them their supermajorities in the first place.

Second, we fear the state’s powerful teachers’ union will manage to divert the rest into higher pay for existing teachers, not longer school years, smaller class sizes, better staffing, increased accountability, lower dropout rates and reduced absenteeism. The goliath of Oregon politics, it badly outguns local districts at the bargaining table.

Third, we’re not persuaded a gross receipts tax on Oregon business is the best way to go. If that’s not a sales tax, it must be a kissing cousin, one which doesn’t appear to be fairly applied.

Republicans denied their Democratic counterparts a quorum for several days before eventually acquiescing. To woo them back, Democrats spiked gun control and vaccine exemption measures to which the GOP took special umbrage.

Politically, that was an easy deal to cut, of course. It gave the Democrats the plausible deniability they needed to dump a couple of divisive measures without overly offending passionate foot soldiers in their own ranks.

We’re hoping for the best, but are braced for something falling well short.


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