Oregon schools need billions to close funding gap, education commission says

Years of underfunding has lead to a widening gap between what schools need and what they’re getting, a new report says

By: - August 8, 2022 5:45 am

Julie Cleavem a reading specialist, works with students at Hallman Elementary School in Salem. (Fred Joe/Salem Reporter)

To meet state education goals, Oregon schools are going to need more money from the Legislature, a new analysis finds.

Every two years, the Education Quality Commission estimates the funding required to operate “a system of highly-effective schools” in the state and recommends a budget to the governor and the Legislature. 

For the 2023-25 biennium, the commission found that Oregon’s education budget needs nearly $11.9 billion, or $2.7 billion more than it currently receives.

“The state has made progress in recent years to narrow the investment gap between what it has historically budgeted for K-12 and what that system needs to achieve the state’s educational objectives,” the commissioners wrote. “Unfortunately, that progress has faced barriers.”

These include revenue shortfalls, the rising cost of goods and services and the discovery that some of the corporate taxes constitutionally dedicated to the education budget, appear to be going into the state’s general fund instead. The committee said that “bears investigation and correction.”

The commission was created by the Legislature in 1999 to make education policy and budget recommendations. It’s made up of 11 people including Colt Gill, the director of the state’s Education Department, several school and education service district superintendents, the president of the state’s largest teacher’s union, Reed Scott-Schwalbach of the Oregon Education Association, and two education consultants. 

The recommendation to increase the budget is based on years of underfunding, according to the commission, and the addition of factors that would improve the quality of education in Oregon. These include paying for more school nurses, counselors and librarians to get schools up to nationally recommended ratios of these staff to students. It also recommended paying for more staff to work with English language learners.

The budget analysis includes an addition of $450 for each classroom in the state for unreimbursed supplies. According to a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, 90% of K-12 teachers spend an average of $459 out of pocket on classroom supplies each year. 

Smaller classes, more training

If the Legislature fully funded the budget, it could pay for more teacher professional development days, teacher training and mentoring, new computers and computer education staff and allow schools to reduce class sizes. 

The commission recommended that the Legislature consider a budget that would pay for universal pre-school.

In addition to sounding the alarm on some corporate tax dollars meant for education that were funneled to the state’s general fund, the commission criticized the Legislature for underfunding the education budget and then shifting pots of money to fill that hole. In 2021, the Legislature approved an education budget that was $2 billion short of what the commission had recommended. The commission said lawmakers plugged that gap with Student Success Act dollars. Passed in 2019, the act is funded by a corporate tax and provides schools with $2 billion every two years to address student mental and behavioral health, class sizes and academic disparities among students. 

Oregon’s school funding gaps go back to 1990, when voters capped the percentage of local property taxes dedicated to schools. This put the burden on the Legislature to make up the funding for districts; it has historically not fully funded the amount requested by the commission.

Oregon law directs the commission to identify at least two alternatives for achieving a greater level of educational quality if the budget request is not fully funded. The commission recommended that the Legislature “remain faithful to the intent of and targeted funding for the Student Success Act” and not use it to backfill the state’s education budget. Secondly, it said that if the Legislature cannot approve a budget that closes the funding gap in the next biennium, to focus on closing it gradually in the next two or three biennia.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.