Oregonians chose two governors in 1990 - Barbara Roberts and Measure 5. Roberts was elected governor of our state, but Measure 5 was voted governor of our public schools. How? Measure 5 took control of school funding away from local communities and gave it to the state, putting schools at the mercy of Measure 5 limitations.
Unbound by term limits, Measure 5 remains governor of our schools today, and as we and our children are learning this year, it is not serving our schools well.
Before Measure 5 passed in 1990, tax activists had failed five other times to limit property taxes. They failed, presumably, because voters feared that lowering taxes would force drastic cuts to schools. So the sponsors of Measure 5 added a provision to their property tax limitation measure requiring the state to make up the money schools lost.
In passing Measure 5, Oregon voters trusted that stable school funding would be maintained. But the state hasn't held up its part of the bargain. In effect, public education is just another state agency now, competing for increasingly scarce state funds against prisons, highways, and other state programs.
Your local schools have suffered in that competition, and right now there is little you can do about it. Measure 5 pulled control of school funding away from local voters and gave it to the state. As Portland Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Prophet said in 1990, "Local control is dead."
We want to breathe some life into local control. We support legislation that would allow local communities to raise local money for their local schools. Local communities will decide whether they want to raise more money for their schools, and if they do, they will decide exactly how much money they want to raise and exactly how it is to be spent. Local voters can insist that the money go directly into classrooms, where our children are working to meet state educational standards and to succeed in college and the workplace.
A "local option" exists now, but it is of limited use. The Measure 5 property tax limit of $5 per thousand and other restrictions on the existing local option mean many school districts cannot raise enough local property taxes to make a local option viable. One new local option model being considered would allow local communities to raise property taxes an additional $2 per thousand outside the Measure 5 limitations.
How much could this help Oregon schools? An additional $2 per thousand could raise each year $20 million for Bend/LaPine schools, an amount equal to 25 percent of the district's operating budget. Certainly, this would not solve Bend's budget woes, but it would help ease the pain of budget cuts.
We want to emphasize three things. First, the issue of equity between districts can be addressed. There is legitimate concern that a local option might benefit property-rich school districts and leave out districts with smaller property tax bases. That is why in 2001 the Legislature established grants allowing property-poor districts to supplement local option money with state funds. Legislation being considered proposes to strengthen this Local Option Equalization Fund.
Second, proposed legislation only establishes an opportunity to generate money for schools. Nowhere in Oregon will taxes be raised unless local voters choose to do so under their own conditions. It's an option local communities deserve - you should have the right to support your local schools if you so choose.
Third, a local option is not the solution to Oregon's severe school funding problem. Our school finance system is broken, and it needs to be changed fundamentally to give public schools the adequate and reliable revenue stream they require. But our schools have immediate needs, and until the public and the Legislature are ready to take on this larger revenue problem, our schools need whatever help we can give them.
Clearly, Oregonians want high-quality public schools. That is why they passed Measure 1 in 2000, which obligates the Legislature to fund public education adequately. And more importantly, Oregon needs high-quality public schools. Our children, our economy, and our quality of life depend on them.
Our Legislature is in a difficult position right now. Never before has Oregon faced budget deficits of this magnitude. As long as the Legislature is unwilling or unable to give schools the help they need, the least it can do is loosen the handcuffs on local communities and give them some freedom to support themselves.
Randall Edwards is the Oregon State Treasurer. Sen. Ryan Deckert (D-Beaverton) is Chair of the Revenue Committee for the Oregon Senate. Rep. Lane Shetterly (R-Dallas) is Chair of the Revenue Committee for the Oregon House of Representatives.