By HENRY BURTON
Special to the News
Last month, Governor Ted Kulongoski issued a 15-page report declaring that Oregon’s public schools need at least $6.7 billion over the next two years to educate their students.
Under a ballot measure pushed by Governor John Kitzhaber in 2000, the governor is required to issue the report every two years to establish the minimum adequate level of funding for k-12 education, and the legislature is required to meet that funding level. However, neither the governor nor the legislature seemed to take the report seriously. Kulongoski’s own budget provides only $5.05 billion.
Last Thursday, the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee revealed its $11.2 billion budget for the 2003-05 biennium. Amazingly, the legislators had the gall to cut $100 million more from schools. Across the state, schools are closing, cutting school days, laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, and cutting music, art, and sports. And, in the face of all this, the Legislature cuts more money. Legislators noted that the allotment for education was $300 million more than schools are receiving in the current biennium. However, in special session last year, the Legislature “deferred” a $256 million payment due to schools into the next biennium, telling school districts to budget for the money anyway, and they would be repaid in July 2003. Because of the Legislature’s accounting tricks, school districts would need $512 million more in 2003-05 just to maintain the same budget they had in 2001-03, even without accounting for inflation and an increased number of students. Where is that money now?
Looking at the Legislature’s budget, Senator Steve Harper, a Republican from Klamath Falls, proclaimed, “Eleven billion dollars buys you a pretty good government.” What is Senator Harper’s idea of a good government? Here in Oregon this year, people are dying because the state eliminated their health insurance and they can’t pay for medications anymore. The Legislature’s budget for next year would eliminate health insurance for 158,000 more people. Oregon has laid off a third of its state troopers, and the Legislature has no intention of rehiring them. Public schools are disintegrating and community colleges and universities are raising tuition drastically. Roads are decaying and hundreds of bridges are crumbling. The state has cut services for senior citizens, the disabled, and the mentally ill. John Kitzhaber’s plan to screen newborn babies for preventable illnesses vanished long ago.
Hubert Humphrey once declared, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
Senator Kurt Schrader, a Democrat, noted that “these are extraordinary times, and I think they call for extraordinary measures.” Extraordinary measures, like funding schools at 74 percent of the minimum adequacy level? Like ignoring the medically needy and butchering the Oregon Health Plan? The Legislature has effectively left thousands of Oregonians to suffer and die. This budget ensures that the only thing extraordinary in Oregon schools and universities next year will be the lack of learning taking place.
This doesn’t seem to bother Kulongoski. On Friday, he issued his revised budget, after accounting for decreased revenue forecasts. It is nearly identical to the Legislature’s plan, although it allows $27 million more for k-12 education (which is still $73 million less than his old budget.) Kulongoski claimed that schools aren’t so bad after all: “They keep claiming that the glass is half-empty. I don’t believe that. The public wants to know why we are putting all this money into education and what we are getting.”
As a student, I can answer those questions. First of all, I never claimed that the glass was half-empty. Three-quarters empty would be more accurate. The cuts have been devastating. Students are learning that their school can’t afford to help them. At some point, kids just stop asking for help.
At this point, I don’t think the majority of Oregonians are concerned that we are overfunding education. If you are still wondering why we fund public schools or why we have them, I recommend you visit one. Public schools are the foundation of democracy. They give everybody the opportunity for a decent education. They give kids hope.
What are we getting? With this kind of budget, we students are getting a slap in the face. If Kulongoski visited Hood River Valley High School, he would see the distress students feel when they are crammed into huge classes, when they lose course offerings, all activities and field trips, and half the sports. Kulongoski is in denial if he truly doesn’t believe his budget hurts schools.
In the midst of all this, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo has a few helpful hints for the disenfranchised Oregonians who don’t write the budget. She recommends that desperate parents “contact your local state representatives, challenge community leaders to support Oregon’s schools, (and) organize press conferences to promote Oregon schools.”
An excellent idea. You can find me standing in my front yard talking most afternoons, but, oddly, the reporters never seem to show up. Maybe they aren’t interested in what I say, because I’m not an elected official. I would contact my state representatives to plead for help, but they evidently don’t care about students. And I would ask the City of Hood River or Hood River County to pitch in the $2.5 million Hood River County School District needs to fill its budget deficit, but I know they are already broke.
I am a member of the Hood River City Council’s Youth Advisory Council. I attend City Council meetings, and every two weeks, I hear about the city’s budget cuts and ongoing struggle to hold down the deficit. I could “challenge” the mayor and councilors to “support Oregon’s schools,” but they are already challenged. They would listen politely and sympathetically, but, inhibited by the restrictions of Measure 5, there is nothing they can do.
Oregon faces a budget deficit of over $2 billion for the upcoming biennium. Balancing the budget through cuts, as the Legislature and governor are trying to do, is totally irresponsible. There is only one way to fix the problems facing this state. State leaders must raise taxes and repeal Measure 5.
In 1990, Oregonians passed Measure 5, dramatically altering state and local government. Measure 5 limited local property taxes and shifted the burden of funding k-12 education to the state. The measure’s lead proponent, Don McIntyre, claimed it would eliminate wasteful government spending. Instead, it has meant drastic cuts to services of all kinds, from libraries to schools to city public works departments.
The new system stayed afloat during the 1990s, when the economy was good. But in today’s economy, tax receipts are down and such limits are untenable. Measure 5’s property tax limits prohibit voters from raising their own taxes, and thus undermine the democratic system. Oregonians must have the power to tax themselves to pay for the services they value. This is a fundamental right of self-government.
Kulongoski insists that the state has enough money without a general tax increase. He claimed this week that leadership shouldn’t involve raising taxes. Instead, he suggests that “We have to have a much more positive message about what we are doing.” In other words, if we just feel good about ourselves, all our problems will go away. This is nonsense. However, our state budget deficit will go away if every Oregonian pitches in $600 over the next two years.
John Adams said, “Laws for the liberal education of youth are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” Clearly, there are no humane and generous minds in Salem. Led by Senator Harper, anti-tax Republicans (and some weak-minded Democrats), the Legislature is determined to shoot down any tax increase. They have also vowed to block attempts to repeal Measure 5, although repealing the measure alone would not raise anyone’s taxes. These legislators insist that raising taxes during a recession would be the ruination of the state, as if things could really get any worse.
Senator Harper says pigs will fly before he votes to raise taxes. Unfortunately, before pigs fly, Oregonians will die for lack of preventative care and high schools will graduate uneducated students. There is no choice. This budget is a crime against Oregon’s people and its future. Not to raise taxes would be simply immoral.
Henry Burton is a junior at Hood River Valley High School.