Oregon latest target in classroom spending minimum measure

Oregon, with its wide-open initiative system, is typically fertile and early ground for new ideas making dents in the national political consciousness.

So it’s not entirely surprising to see groundwork being laid here for a November 2006 ballot initiative that would require the state’s 198 school districts to funnel at least 65 percent of their funding directly to the classroom, to pay for items like teacher’s salaries and benefits, computers and after-school programs.

The idea is spreading across the country, and has already gained votes of confidence from legislatures in Louisiana and Kansas, the endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sparked an under way ballot campaign in Arizona and drawn approving notice from conservative columnist George Will.

The Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, the group that led the successful drive to spike a proposed $800 million temporary tax increase in 2004, would spearhead what’s being short-handed as “the 65 percent solution.”

The group’s goal is to submit a proposed ballot measure on the topic to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury’s office in the next week or two, where it would join an ambitious slate of conservative-leaning initiatives that may find their way onto the ballot next November.

The ostensible hook behind the plan is that it does not petition voters to raise their taxes. Instead, school boards would be told to cut back on spending on administrative and support services to meet the 65 percent threshold.

Oregonians could prove receptive to the idea. In a May 2005 survey done for Portland-based Citizens’ for Oregon’s Future, most people said they had no idea how much school districts spent on administration; but those who did wager a guess pinned the figure at an average of 34 percent, far above the state education department’s official figure of 7.8 percent.

And in a 2002 audit, the Secretary of State’s office found that on average, the state’s school districts spent an average of $4,244 per student on instruction, just below the national average of $4,268, while outside-the-classroom spending topped national averages. Bringing Oregon’s support-services level down to the national average could generate an extra $162 million, the audit found.

But education activists say those numbers don’t take into account people like guidance counselors, librarians and speech pathologists, the kind of support staff that they say keep a school functioning from day-to-day. They argue for the buses that bring kids to schools in far-flung rural districts, the vice principal who spends his days dealing with behavior and discipline issues, or the cafeteria staff who dish out free-and-reduced price breakfasts to students in the state’s poorest districts.

“The idea of taking this arbitrary number, and trying to apply it to 198 school districts, ranging in size from three students to 45,000 is absurd,” said John Marshall, a lobbyist for the Oregon School Boards Association. “At a small, rural school where there is a deputy clerk, that might be a larger portion of the budget than all non-teaching staff in a regular district.”

Advocates for the idea, though, say it would appeal to Oregonians who suspect schools of being wasteful with tax dollars, and want more guarantees about how public money is doled out.

“This is one of our priority pieces of legislation that we are going to support,” said Russ Walker, who leads the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks. “If the education establishment is going to come and ask for money, that’s fine, but we must be efficient in how we spend our dollars.”

Organized opposition to the proposal will likely adopt the phrase “local control” as a buzzword, said Chip Terhune, a lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, who also said the group might consider proposing a counter-initiative.

“I can’t imagine a conversation about a state mandate over local districts that wouldn’t end up becoming a debate about whether or not districts should control their own fate,” he said.

Nationally, the 65 percent idea is already being cast as a potential wedge issue that could cause trouble for Democratic candidates. The idea is being pushed by a newly formed group, Washington, D.C. based First Class Education, and funded in part by Internet retailer Patrick Byrne, the Utah-based president of Overstock.com, who has already given $250,000 in start-up money, and is pledging $1 million more to the cause.

A leaked memo from the group that was first published by the Austin American-Statesman of Texas, said the 65 percent plan could put traditional political allies like administrators and teachers at odds, and could force education groups to divert money that might otherwise go to progressive-leaning candidates.

The plan has surfaced in Oregon before, when state Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, tried and failed to introduce it as a bill during the recently concluded legislative session. Starr said he couldn’t get the bill past the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Eugene Democrat Vicki Walker; education lobbying groups also campaigned against the proposal behind the scenes.

Even among conservatives, the plan has its detractors. Rob Kremer, with the Oregon Education Coalition, a group that has loudly opposed the state’s current high school testing system, said he’s not convinced by the 65 percent plan.

“Do I think this is worth a ballot measure to do something that the bureaucracy can easily game? No.” Kremer said. “Schools have flexibility in how they categorize the money they spend. So this would just require schools to spend time and money creating the illusion we are telling them to create.”

Russ Walker, who is also the vice-chair of the Oregon GOP, said FreedomWorks is already backing at least three other proposed ballot measures, including one on judicial reforms, a state spending limit, and a tax cut initiative.

But mounting a ballot campaign in Oregon, and gathering the required signatures, is an expensive proposition, and Walker said FreedomWorks could wind up scaling back their efforts to focus on just three of the proposals. The group has to weigh the ballot title they receive from the secretary of state’s office, reaction among key constituents, and how much time they have to collect the thousands of signatures needed to place a measure on the ballot, Walker said.

“As it stands now, this (the 65 percent proposal) would be a priority piece,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that we wouldn’t jettison it, but it seems unlikely that we would.”