Oregon’s Opaque K-12 Finances

CascadeNewLogoBy William Newell

Before people make financial decisions, most seek out information in order to make better choices. But according to a recent report by the Cato Institute, when Oregon voters are tasked with making financial decisions about K-12 education, they are hard-pressed to find the information they need, let alone interpret what is available.

The report, entitled Cracking the Books, measures financial transparency in K-12 education throughout the nation. In the study, Oregon performed dismally, earning an “F-” and ranking 44th. New Mexico and South Dakota took the top two spots, receiving the only “A’s” for their transparency efforts. Only seven states scored higher than a “C+”. Our West Coast neighbors Washington and California performed well and were rewarded with a “B” and “B-,” respectively.

Of the four categories used to analyze the state’s education financial information, Oregon scored best in public accessibility, with a score of 10.5 out of 15. Alternatively, Oregon failed to earn even half the points available in the transparency categories for per-pupil expenditures, total expenditure data, and average salary data.

Quality, accessible information for voters is essential to making good policy. If Oregon really wants to stand up for transparency and accountability in government, then the state should learn from our neighbors and start with more transparency in its biggest budget item, K-12 education.

William Newell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a graduate of Willamette University.

Learn more at cascadepolicy.org.

  • Bob Clark

    I agree the public needs a lot more transparency with respect to government program expenditures and even revenues. Often, substantial parts of government sales pitches are based only on part of the picture, a picture which really changes when the whole picture is presented. Take for instance, the past few years in which school districts such as Portland Public Schools has been whining how its budget has been cut. The fact its school budget was expanding, albeit at a slower rate than usual, but escalating PERS costs were taking a greater and greater proportion of its funding away from the classroom. Then recently, the state House legislative body in House Bill 3472 touts how the state government’s expenditure on higher education has declined in recent years, causing tuition costs to escalate sharply. But again this is using half facts to sell a Bill, as the fact is the federal government is pouring easy monies into higher education helping fuel the demand for college without doing anything to increase its supply.
    I will say, though, the Oregon Transparency project launched with the help of Representative Thatcher and others is bringing much more transparency to state government budgeting than previously. So, there is significant progress.

  • JackLordGod

    I’m not sure how much a report will change public opinion, but it is good to have this out. Really what needs to happen is the realization our education policy is formed by chestnuts that I am sad to say most people believe:

    Chestnut 1 – “It will be a great day when the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy a battleship, and our schools have all the money they need”

    Most people believe this bumper sticker. They are under the impression we spend vastly more on defense than we do on education. The answer is we don’t we spend roughly the same on each.

    Interestingly, ignorance of this fact is not considered the mark of the uninformed, yet for some reason people who think foreign aid constitutes a major portion of the budget are regularly ridiculed.

    Chestnut 2 – Teachers are underpaid. They aren’t. Average teacher salary in Oregon could hardly be considered paltry, and it must be kept in mind it is a nine month a year job. Teaching might be an important job, however lots of jobs are important. I can think of none where results as abysmal as our schools have been tolerated for decades and those at the wheel can cheerfully pop off that they need a raise.

    Chestnut 3 – School funding has been cut. This is nonsense, teachers make more than ever, teach fewer days than ever, and per pupil spending has doubled (in constant dollars) since the late 70’s. We regularly rank in the top three countries in the world for per pupil spending. Anyone think we rank in the top three for educational performance?

    The answer here is – when you hear someone say “we need to spend more money on schools”, ask them if they know how much we already spend.

    When someone says teachers are underpaid, ask them how much they think teachers get paid? Point out that we spend more on schools than ever before and seem to have less to show for it. What makes them think spending even more will do anything?

    Don’t be confrontational with this, but try and lead the person in a direction where they understand this is their money, their children, and they really should look into where that money is going. You will be surprised how well this can work. It is one issue, perhaps the easiest one, where I have found it is fairly easy to take a throw money at it liberal and change their opinion. Everyone is a conservative in the field of their own endeavor, and when it comes to their kids education, that can be especially true if someone has the facts.

    • Metro taxpayer

      Bingo! Write on.

  • oregongrown

    There is no single government agency I am more sick of than “the schools.” The big, bloated, complaining mess that is our public school system, with Mercedes benefits, with retirements that start at 55, or before, with more time off apparently not realizing that we no longer live in an agrarian economy. But really it’s because the teachers want the summers off.

    We are forced to have 197 separate school districts in Oregon all with their kings and queens. None of the conglomerate is geared to serving “the kids.” It’s all “for the adults” and while they continue to fail us and the kids, they earn big salaries, and incredible pensions. Performance is not a factor. They cannot fail to earn big money.

    I have lived in Portland for over 30 years. I’m trying to remember even one year when the cry “schools in crisis” was not bellowed on every single newscast. PPS will not be satisfied until we all live in cardboard boxes “for the schools.”

    This year, the K-12 schools took another $1 billion from the state budget and we still have the same news stories and laments, “school days will be cut” “gee we try so hard but just need more money.”

    So jeanboy has called a special session “for the schools.” Except it’s not. First we just heard about the revival of the “bridge too short” so that’s the big reason for the special session, and then he claimed it was for PERS reform, “for the schools.” Who besides the big government contingent, the people that are getting the checks, believe him anymore?

    PERS is sucking up every new tax dollar like a Hoover vacuum and that’s exactly what happened all the $1 billion. No one will admit that.

    PPS votes themselves across the board raises every single contract. It doesn’t matter to them that PERS costs have more than doubled. Not on their radar. It doesn’t matter some of the teachers have stayed long past their expiration date, but can’t be fired because seniority rules. They insist on living in a time warp, that has no relation to today.

    For decades we have heard teachers are woefully underpaid, but that’s a lie. Only recently have we been given the PERS data and that’s telling us how bad it really is for those of us that are on the hook to pay it. They are paid top dollar for working part-time, and their pensions are incredible, unheard of in the private sector, multi-million dollar pensions, and not just for the top staffers. I ran the numbers for a teacher that retired, with a BA, not an MA, and her pensions will be over $2.842 million, if she lives to age 85:

    Her starting pension is 87% of her final salary. Within 6 years she is over 100% of her final salary. Ten years after retirement she is taking home $73,139 annually.

    In the first ten years – $670,122.93
    The second ten years- $816,876.11
    The third ten years – $995,767.46

    Total retirement paid (if she lives to her life expectancy
    of 85 years) in 30 years $2,482,766.46

    I am using her starting pension payment of $60,000 a year
    and increasing it by 2% a year. ( I know that has changed)

    And look at their results for BILLIONS spent. PPS ranked 7th worst on the Race to the Top-Obama’s program (this is their guy). When offered another chance, they declined. The next year they came in 13th, so again lost millions for schools. It doesn’t matter they just hammer the taxpayers for new taxes, like always.

    As far as transparency the only site I know that gives us clear information is the Cascade Policy Institute, and their school data is from 2010 (they have to buy the reports); and we know the schools have given themselves two raises since then.

    PERS is the biggest swindle on Oregon citizens and the education contingent are the biggest feeder at the PERS trough, taking more than half. And what we get is a total ripoff.

  • ardbeg

    You have ballot measure 5 to thanks for much of this. It took local control of funding out of local hands and put it in the hands of State Government. That is rarely a good thing! Transparency is almost always better at the local level than it is at the State level.

    • Uh, oh!

      Beware Scotchman! The ghost of Gene McIntyre may be recalling you.