Saving Education

Right From the Start

Several months ago, prior to the convening of this legislative session, I wrote in response to the hand wringing by Democrats and Oregon’s major newspapers over the alleged $3.5 Billion budgetary shortfall:

“Myth No. 1. There is a $3.5 Billion budgetary shortfall. No there isn’t.

“The peculiar way that the state legislature deals with the budget assumes that every program will continue unabated adjusted for inflation and growth in demand. It assumes that every public employee will continue and (s)he will receive two raises per years plus increased costs for healthcare insurance and the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). And it assumes that the state will fund every federal unfunded mandate and/or provide matching funds for every federal partially funded mandate.”

Not surprisingly the whole issue of the budget shortfall has disappeared since Gov. Kitzhaber announced his budget and turned his back on any mention of a “shortfall.” Oregon’s major newspapers, being what they are, quickly understood the change in the message and have begun to echo the governor’s new message.

But there is still a budget problem because those 6,200 public employees are still on the job and still draining the state’s coffers with salaries above private sector equivalents and health and pension benefits far in excess of private sector employment. And Gov. Kitzhaber has made it worse by increasing the number of employees by another 1,700 with February’s increases yet to be reported.

Those 6,200 public employees have become 7,400 and their cost to state government has increased. Based on The Oregonian’s figure of $80,000 as the average annual cost of a state public employee ($50,000 in salary plus $30,000 in benefits and employer payroll taxes) the cost has risen from $992,000,000 for the biennium to $1,184,000,000 for the biennium.

Budget constraints, even for education, are necessary in order to provide a balanced budget. But the focus of those constraints can be either prudent or punishing.

Democrats in past election cycles and legislative session, at the urging of the public employee unions, have listed the “parade of horribles” that any reduction in spending will cause – schools will close, the sick will die, the elderly will be cast out into the streets and the prison doors will be thrown wide open. The public employee unions have demonstrated repeatedly that they are prepared to sacrifice programs in order to maintain benefits. This is a season where those two apparitions could combine to punish Oregonians by sacrificing classroom instruction in order to maintain benefits.

Following are four elements for ensuring that Oregon’s children do not suffer in the context of funding K-12 education:

  1. Funding cuts should be first applied to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and her Department of Education. The cost of the Superintendent’s office and the Department of Education along with their intrusion into local school decision making has increased dramatically over the past three decades. And during that same period of time Oregon has watched a consistent decline in academic achievement vis-a-vis other states and more importantly other countries. One only need remember the fourteen years of the CIM/CAM boondoggle which cost Oregonians hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars with not a single definable benefit. Whatever the rationale for the growth in the Department of Education, it isn’t working and any education budget reductions should be applied first there.
  2. State legislative mandates relating to instructional criteria should be eliminated and such decisions should be the purview of local school boards. The same can be said of federal unfunded mandates. The state should simply inform the federal government that it will not enforce federal mandates unless fully funded by the federal government.
  3. State funding for education should be limited to classroom uses. In the past I have been critical of formulaic solutions to school funding such as the Sixty-five Percent Solution because of the ease of manipulating the criteria. However, the intent of such measures is laudable and that intent should be pursued. By limiting state funds to the payment of classroom instructors, instructional materials and recurring utility costs, the burden for making decisions regarding administration, buildings and ancillary service will vest with the persons responsible for incurring the income to support them.
  4. Schools were never intended to be all things for all people. The limitation or elimination of social services within the schools should be a ten-year goal. The responsibility for raising, feeding and educating children as to their health, moral and societal responsibilities rest with the parents – or the social services agencies – and not the schools. The elimination of personnel and costs attendant to those programs will allow schools to focus on their primary mission – the education of children.

Oregon’s legislature is not the vehicle for determining how to educate children, but it sure is the vehicle for exercising fiscal discipline to ensure that education dollars are spent on classroom education.