School performance and tax policy

Let’s talk about school performance and tax policy.

First, grab a paper sack and start slowly breathing into it until your hyperventilation stops. Okay, now blink hard a couple of times and take a drink of water. Repeat this process until the swearing stops, the vein in your head stops pulsing and the room stops swirling. Okay?

Are you ready?

Let’s talk intelligently about school performance and tax policy.

The performance of Oregon schools continues to decline. That doesn’t mean that each year students perform at lower levels than the preceding class – not always. But it does mean that each year Oregon’s students perform at lower levels in comparison to students in other states. In other words, Oregon is falling further behind vis a vis the rest of the nation.

There is a Latin phrase used in tort law – res ipsa loquitur – that basically means, “I don’t know how it happened but somebody owes me.” Actually, it means “The thing speaks for itself.” It reflects my view of Oregon’s education system.

I don’t know for sure what has happened but I know that it isn’t working and somebody should be held accountable. I always have my favorite two favorite targets – the public employee unions who demand and receive such rich benefits without any accountability as to performance, and the social engineers, masquerading as educational experts, who think schools exist for everything but academic education.

Both groups have the same solution for our schools – spend more money. And this year they prevailed in the legislature which appropriated almost a billion dollars more for education. Of course, as soon as the legislature adjourned, we discovered what we always suspected. Most of the billion dollars (seventy-five percent) was going to go for higher salaries, improved benefits for the existing teachers and inflation. There is going to be few additional teachers, few new text books, any improved performance, or any change whatsoever. A billion dollars more bought Oregon’s children a continuing decline in their educational performance.

But let me suggest a different solution. Local control.

The current system has centralized control at the state level because most of the funding comes from the legislature. As a result, the public employees unions only have to lobby the people they got elected to office for increased benefits and work rules that stymie local school boards. The social engineers can impose their “one size fits all” experiments without fear of comparative performance between school districts.

In order to accommodate local control, however, you have to unify the responsibility for spending revenues with the authority to raise revenues. That’s the way schools used to operate – you know back when education was working and Oregon schools were the envy of the nation. That’s back when schools were funded primarily by property tax and timber tax revenues. Now, however, Measure 5 has placed a limitation on property taxes – a limitation that makes if difficult, if not impossible, for local communities to raise sufficient revenue for a quality education.

I was and am a supporter of Measure 5. However, I think the time has come to adjust Measure 5 in order to return control of schools to the communities where local officials understand the needs of their communities better than the legislature and surely better than the “education experts.” But Measure 5 was passed by the voters in reaction to abuse by local officials who enjoyed a nirvana of revenue increases due to rapidly escalating property values and increased mill levies. So, while I am prepared to adjust Measure 5, I certainly would not urge its elimination.

Here’s my solution. Determine a new cap on mill levies for schools based upon current funding levels. Require that any increases beyond that cap be approved by voters at a general election – no special elections. In order to maintain revenue neutrality, there should also be a dollar for dollar state income tax credit for every dollar by which the new levies exceed the current limitation under Measure 5.

Now we have re-established local control. The local school boards cannot shirk responsibility for educational performance by saying the legislature did not provide sufficient funds or imposed too many mandates. And the legislature will no longer have a significant role in education funding and will be less susceptible to the political power and money from the public employee unions.

The local school boards will have the responsibility of providing an educational program of sufficient quality that their voters will authorize the spending for their specific schools.

Try it, you’ll like it.