Rep. Knute Buehler: PERS crisis hurts our schools

By State Representative Knute Buehler

This month, Oregon students and teachers begin returning to one of the better funded public education systems in the country. The National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union, estimates Oregon’s spending per student in 2017 to be $12,161, which ranks 18th in the country and is above the U.S. average.

This should be good news, but unfortunately it’s not.

Walk into almost any classroom in Oregon, and it won’t look or feel like one of the better funded systems. Oregon’s class sizes are among the largest and our school years the shortest. Special programs, from field trips and athletics to advanced placement and tutoring, are either in short supply or come with significant additional fees.

Possibly more than anyone, teachers feel this disconnect between growing budgets and substandard staffing. Kelsy Dunlap, who will teach physics to a class of 40 high school freshmen in the Salem-Keizer School District, was resigned in her recent interview with The Oregonian: “That’s Oregon. That’s what we do here,” she said. “It’s demoralizing.”

Our massive pension liability — now approaching $25 billion — is principally to blame. This July, school districts and public employers began a two-decade process to pay down that debt. For schools, spending on pensions will gradually climb from $1,000 to $1,600 per student over the next six years.

That extra $600 per student could pay for 14 days of school. But districts can’t balance their budgets by cutting more days from an already short calendar. Instead, they’ll look to even larger class sizes, fewer electives, and higher fees for activities.

This is unacceptable in the Oregon we love. Gov. Kate Brown has refused to lead on pension reforms that can improve our schools.

Today’s Public Employees Retirement System problems grew out of mistakes and mismanagement that started in the late 1960s, and it will take time to undo the damage. It’s critical to start on the path to sustainable pensions and adequately staffed schools.

The courts’ rulings on the PERS reforms of 1996, 2003 and 2013 have provided clear instructions about what can and cannot be addressed as we proceed. They’ve ruled that clawing back benefits already earned is off-limits — regardless of how ill-devised those benefits were. Brown and many of my Democratic colleagues take that as a signal that nothing can be done — and we’re stuck with class sizes of 30 or more students and demoralized teachers. They’re wrong. As clear as the courts have been about honoring past promises, they’ve also been clear the state can build a better pension going forward.

Unfortunately, Brown’s only solution to the growing PERS problem is to raise taxes higher and higher to fund ballooning pension liabilities. Oregon schools aren’t financially challenged because Oregonians are under-taxed — they’re financially challenged because rising pension and health care costs are cannibalizing dollars that should be redirected to classroom learning.

So where do we look for solutions?

Pension experts and legislators, including Republican Tim Knoop, who represents me in the state Senate, have offered many thoughtful proposals in the last few years.

One of the better set of ideas was advanced by the Portland City Club in 2011. The nonpartisan, citizen panel designed a seven-point plan that is still actionable today. Among its recommendations is a redesigned pension that would be very similar to the one that Washington offers its new teachers. The City Club stopped short of advocating a full transition to a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution system, but that, too, should be on the table.

A reformed pension system needs to assure those already retired that their pensions are secure while being adequate to meet the future retirement needs of current educators, police and firefighters that we respect — restricting the state’s ability to provide valuable services to all Oregonians. And it should be fair. Today, older and younger employees are operating under different plans — with older employees covered by a more generous package and younger employees having to pick up the slack. One-size-fits-all reforms won’t work.

With leadership and bipartisan solutions, Oregon can meet this challenge. We can honor our commitments to public employees and still put enough money in the classroom to provide a world class education and equip our children for the jobs of a modern economy.

Or we can continue to ignore the problem as Governor Brown has done and commit Oregon students and teachers to 20 years of substandard education and difficult classroom conditions. This is the kind of change Oregonians are ready for.

Knute Buehler (Bend) is an Oregon House State Representative and Oregon 2018 Governor Republican Primary candidate.