Oregon’s budget crisis is a blessing in disguise for schools. It has helped expand education debates from a myopic focus on total funding to a more useful discussion about spending priorities.
Despite an 11 percent increase in the K-12 education budget from the previous biennium, core education services are being cut. It appears that we have some black holes in our education budgets. The following are likely suspects:
Benefits: A March 18 Oregonian article reported that health insurance and retirement benefits for Oregon teachers have each gone up by about 39 percent since 1996.
Special education: These costs are rising faster than non-special education expenditures. For example in Portland special education costs have risen 78 percent in the past decade.
Non-core services: Portland Public Schools discovered that it was overspending for custodial services by $5 million when compared to the private sector. Both the Forest Grove School District and the Evergreen School District (Vancouver) save 30 percent by contracting custodial services. Savings could also be found in transportation and food service.
Department of Education: The current operations budget is $120 million per biennium and about 500 employees work at the Salem office. With fewer mandates from the state many of these positions could be eliminated.
Were it not for the current budget crisis Oregonians might never have realized that core services were being defunded — that funding increases weren’t getting to the classroom. The debate cannot be just about how much money is spent on education. We need to ask where and how the money is spent.
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