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School funding waltz: Measure 5, equalization and legislative puppeteering

QuickPoint!

Political candidates and editorial boards across the state blame Measure 5 for centralizing education funding in Salem. Although the initiative did give the state a greater role in school funding, a number of other changes have also furthered state involvement in education.

A case study is the Condon School District in eastern Oregon, which is struggling with budget cuts. Lynn Wilkins, Condon School Board chairman, said, “Prior to Measure 5 passing in 1990, Condon was one of the three highest taxed per thousand for schools in the state. … Now we are puppets of the Legislature in Salem and scrambling for funding.” Condon’s problems are also related to declining enrollment and the legislature’s decision to equalize funding across school districts and Education Service Districts (ESD). Condon relied heavily on the local ESD for programs, but equalization has reduced its funding. Spending equalization was part of a nationwide trend towards educational equity that occurred largely as a result of various federal and state lawsuits.

With control over funding assured, the legislature rushed to increase state involvement in education policy, thereby limiting local discretion over spending. In 1991 the legislature passed the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century, which created statewide learning objectives, performance benchmarks, standardized tests, and vocational education.

It may be politically expedient to blame Measure 5 for problems in education funding, but it ignores the many other factors affecting both school funding and policy. Oregon should look for innovative ways to give those closest to education more control over the process.

Nick Weller is an education policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland, Oregon based think tank.

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