Public Education Is No Longer a Priority in Oregon

Public education is no longer a top priority in the state of Oregon. At least that’s the message students, parents and teachers got when a majority of voters nixed Measure 97, a corporate tax ballot measure, on November 8. Measure 97 would have levied a 2.5 percent gross receipts tax on C corporations with Oregon sales of more than $25 million. Had it passed, it would have raised approximately $6 billion a biennium, adding to the $19 billion state general fund. It proposed to build on Oregon’s corporate minimum tax structure and capture business revenues that currently are lost due to tax breaks and sheltered income. Under 97, a business filing as a C corporation would have paid $1.15 million instead of the $50,000 owed under the existing corporate excise tax.

Proponents estimated that if the measure had passed, the additional $6 billion raised each biennium would be invested in Oregon’s underfunded education, health care and senior services. The measure’s supporters had hoped that a portion of the revenues would enable schools to reduce class size, expand instructional time and restore lost electives. Now, that won’t happen.

The campaign for Measure 97 was the most expensive in Oregon’s history, with supporters and opponents spending a combined $46 million. The fight was as divisive as the property tax limitation proposals of the 1990s, when voters passed Measures 5, 47 and 50.

Ballot Measure 5 passed in 1990 on it sixth appearance on the ballot. This constitutional measure limited total taxes and government charges on a property, phasing in a dramatic ratcheting down of the millage rate over five years. When the five-year phase-in ended in 1995-1996, the law cut total school taxes from $15.00 to $5.00 per $1,000 of each property’s real market value. It also limited total local government property taxes to $10.00 per $1,000.

The movement to reduce property taxes did not end with Ballot Measure 5. Prompted by concerns with Oregon’s rising property values in 1990s, Bill Sizemore formed Taxpayer’s United, part of the Oregon Tax Revolt Movement that emerged to oppose property taxes. In 1996, Sizemore and his supporters introduced Ballot Measure 47. It cut maximum assessed value (MAV) of properties built in or before 1996 to real market values of 1993 and limited MAV to 3 percent per year. Sizemore’s draft of this “cut-and-cap” law was filed with errors, ambiguities and non-alignment to Ballot Measure 5’s changes. The Oregon Legislature was forced to draft Measure 50 to repeal and correct Measure 47. Voters approved Measure 50 in 1997.

In the last 25 years, property and corporate tax cuts have deepened the funding crisis that Oregon public schools face today. It’s not that Oregonians don’t care about education — they do. In fact, most Oregonians say they want to see more money go to public schools. But pollsters say it’s easier to defeat a ballot measure than to pass it, particularly if it involves raising taxes.

While corporations have demanded higher graduation rates and college degree attainment to reach the state’s 40-40-20 goal, they vigorously campaigned against a means to achieve that objective. The goal requires that 40 percent of adult Oregonians between 25 and 64 obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher, another 40 percent an associate’s degree or equivalent, and the remaining 20 percent at least high school diploma or a G.E.D. by 2025. Corporations claimed that Measure 97 would have forced businesses to pass on the tax to consumers and would send a “blank check” to lawmakers in Salem. Proponents of the measure argued otherwise.

Complicating matters for legislative budget writers in 2017, the passage of Measures 96, 98 and 99 means that veterans’ services, career technical education and universal Outdoor School will create $560 million in new funding burdens on the state’s limited resources. According to the Quality Education Commission, the state is likely to face a public school funding gap of more than $2 billion in the next biennium, even without these new unfunded mandates.

The passage of new requirements without new money could not come at a worse time. The state leaders forecast a general fund deficit of $1.7 billion for the coming biennium. Assuming that the state legislature cannot raise new revenue and therefore must make cuts to schools and other essential services, Oregon’s notorious class sizes will worsen. This means less contact time with students, fewer supports and less student engagement. When this happens, many students struggle to succeed.

Oregon has enjoyed a strong economic recovery since the Great Recession, yet the state has failed to adequately fund public schools. According to the Education Law Center’s annual National Report Card, which evaluates and compares school funding systems across states, Oregon’s $8,103 per-pupil expenditure ranked a dismal 35th among states. And for its “effort index” — the ratio of local and state taxes to Gross State Product — Oregon got an F. Why? Because corporations doing business in Oregon pay fewer taxes than they did 30 years ago (5 percent of the General Fund, down from 18 percent).

In Children in America’s Schools, a PBS documentary about the disparities in public school funding, education expert Jonathan Kozol mused, “It makes you wonder whether America really likes children…. I mean, obviously we like our own children, but do we like other people’s children?”

This is the question Oregonians face today.