One of Oregon’s most powerful education groups is looking to change the state Constitution to force more spending on public schools.
The Oregon School Boards Association notes that Oregon has fallen from being just above the national average for school funding to well below it. Oregon also has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country — a problem that many in the education community tie to funding, among other factors.
Article VIII, Section 8 of Oregon's Constitution allows legislators to either fund schools according to a level determined by an outside commission or write a report explaining why they didn't.
Year after year, Oregon lawmakers fall short of funding schools at the levels recommended by the Quality Education Commission and routinely publish reports.
The last time around, the commission set a funding level under the "Quality Education Model" that was nearly $2 billion higher than what legislators ultimately approved.
Washington lawmakers are fighting contempt of court citations in an ongoing legal battle over school funding. But Washington's Constitution is different from Oregon's.
When Oregon school districts tried suing the state over spending on schools, the Oregon Supreme Court sided with the state and didn't force lawmakers to spend more on schools. The 2009 decision upheld the state Legislature's right to publish reports instead.
So now, the Oregon School Boards Association is considering a ballot measure — either a legislative referral or a citizens' initiative — to remove the conditional aspect of Article VIII, Section 8. That would effectively force the state to spend more on schools.
OSBA director Betsy Miller-Jones said the group looks at the "revenue reform" effort in two steps.
"The first [step] is to take that [part] out and actually require the Legislature to fund public education in Oregon at the Quality Education Model level,” Miller-Jones said.
She said the next step is to identify a funding source to provide the additional revenue.
One possibility is Measure 97 — the initiative to increase taxes on companies with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon — which goes before voters in November. It's estimated to raise $3 billion per year if voters approve it. That could potentially raise funding for schools to the levels called for in the QEM.
OSBA is neutral on Measure 97, and the constitutional amendment OSBA is proposing couldn't take effect before Measure 97. But Miller-Jones said the constitutional amendment her group is proposing could address concerns from critics of the Measure 97, who say funds are too open to the political whims of Salem lawmakers.
Miller-Jones said her group’s constitutional idea would prioritize spending for schools.
"The first step takes care of what we believe is one of the weaknesses of Measure 97, which is that it doesn't guarantee any funding to public education in Oregon," said Miller-Jones.
OSBA is discussing several alternatives if Measure 97 fails. Those include revenue generators like a "commercial activity tax," proposed by state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), property tax reforms, as well as a sales tax (which has been tried unsuccessfully nine times in Oregon).
OSBA is also considering ways to force a share of state funding go to public schools, though those efforts could reduce what other state services receive, if they're not paired with additional revenue.