ANOTHER VOICE: PERS reform critical to education in Oregon

My father was a general contractor, as I am. So I learned at a young age that you can’t build a lasting house without first setting a firm foundation.

After two terms on the Hood River County School District Board of Directors, a lifetime in business and seeing firsthand how our laws are made in Salem, I believe more strongly than ever that our public schools and Oregon’s economic health are inextricably linked.

Over the last few years we’ve allowed the foundation of our economy — a strong school system that creates productive employees and good citizens — to erode. That’s why I’ve joined the bipartisan effort to increase school funding in the next biennium to at least $6.55 billion.

All over the state, local school boards have been passing measures this year supporting the notion that education spending is a long-term investment that pays dividends for all of us. Called “Strong Schools, Strong State,” the campaign is being supported by the Oregon School Boards Association, PTA, school administrators, teachers and other education advocates.

Now in the Legislature we’ve got to find another $200 million in savings through reform of the Public Employees Retirement System — and I favor even more stringent reforms and greater savings — to reach a two-year funding figure of $6.75 billion. That represents a $1 billion increase over the last biennium.

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But over the last decade in Oregon we have consistently chipped away at our investment in K-12 education.

Going back to 2003-05, Oregon spent 44.8 percent of its general fund and lottery budget on K-12 education. That figure has fallen every two years, and currently stands at 38.7 percent.

By reaching a level of $6.75 billion for 2013-15 we will have begun to swing the pendulum back. At 41.6 percent, education won’t hold its share from a decade ago, but we will have put some stability into the local school funding picture — in Hood River and beyond.

Increasing education’s share of the state budget won’t solve all of the challenges we face in teaching our children. We have to use that money wisely, and we have to resolve the PERS question that is draining money that would otherwise be spent in classrooms and in providing other public services.

This week the House is expected to tackle the PERS reform question, in the shape of Senate Bill 822. While the bill represents a start, it does not do nearly enough to ensure that Oregon will have sufficient resources to pay for schools and other vital services in coming years.

In fact, the bill’s inability to corral our spiraling PERS debt can be directly tied to efforts under way to extract $275 million through higher taxes on businesses and higher-income earners. I cannot in good conscience vote to raise taxes when we as a Legislature have not done our best to reform PERS.

I hope that more of my colleagues in the House will join me in recognizing that meaningful PERS reform is a necessary component of reinvesting in public education. By doing so, we will have begun to repair a decade’s worth of damage to the Oregon that we all call home.

And we will be re-establishing a foundation worthy of our children.

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Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, is serving his second term in the House. He is also running unopposed for a third term May 21 for a seat on the Hood River County School District Board of Directors.

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