Embedded (deep) in the school-budget trench

Consider this a front-line report from the combat zone of Oregon public school funding - a nasty skirmish that's just part of the budget battle going on in statehouses from coast to coast. If Hollywood made a TV show about what's going on here, they could call it "Unhappy Days." The national media has been tattling on us big-time, so the whole country is aware of our troubles. Garry Trudeau even lampooned the situation in his Doonesbury strip.Now I have an inkling of how misbehaving students felt in the old days when they had to sit in front of the class wearing a dunce cap.

But we're not alone in this plight. Public schools are scrambling for money all over the country - reducing the number of electives, eliminating after-school programs, and even charging fees to ride the bus. Wally and the Beaver would be appalled.

Somewhere along this bumpy road, Oregon became the poster child of the budgetary extreme. I feel eerie kinship with residents of other beleaguered places, like Baghdad. We watch correspondents zip in, file stories, and head off to the next assignment. Meanwhile, I and thousands of other parents of school kids are embedded here for the duration. While pundits and politicians argue about who's to blame and what should be done, we deal with the consequences daily.

One consequence that got Oregon plenty of unwanted notoriety is early school closures. I'm in the Beaverton district, just west of Portland, and we're staying open until June 13. But the neighboring Hillsboro district closed schools last Friday. Needless to say, this extra vacation time didn't go unnoticed by the Beaverton student population. "If they're getting out early, how come we're not?" was the question that echoed through numerous households, including mine.

It's not a case of rich man, poor man. There are pockets of affluence here and there, but most of the older neighborhoods in both districts look like Pleasantville. The short answer is that Hillsboro ran out of money and Beaverton has enough to keep going awhile longer. I should be more articulate, but the cruel irony of education funding is that much of it is so complicated that average adults like me sound like blockheads when we try to tell our kids how the system works. My eighth-grade daughter doesn't find this explanation totally convincing.

But I can state with certainty that things were set in motion in 1990, when Oregonians passed their version of California's Proposition 13. Ours was Measure 5: It put limits on property taxes while shifting most of the financial burden for public schools onto the state budget. As Oregon's economy slid downward during the past few years,tax revenues dwindled andthe debate over how much to allocate for schools has become a permanent hot button.

"Where does all the money go?" is another question that comes up a lot and can be mystifying to anyone who hasn't spent time walking the hallways. Beaverton schools have 35,000 students. To operate the district for one day costs roughly $750,000. Does that seem high? Because this is where many discussions about school funding begin, and quickly become heated. Salaries are a major part of the cost, but they don't register on my indignation meter. The teachers and staff at my daughter's school deserve every dime they get. The demands of supervising 900 kids would, as my mother used to say, drive me straight to the booby hatch. That's a politically incorrect term, but I'm very un-PC. "Skip the formalities" is my personal axiom - but professional educators and policymakers don't have this luxury. I know many of them are sincere when they talk about helping each child "reach for the stars" and "not leaving anyone behind." I also know that in every school, rural or urban, public or private, some students are bound for glory and others pursue the lifestyle of Swamp Thing. As the kids say, "Get real."

Which brings me to another controversial - and costly - subject: discipline.

Critics of public schools often complain that bad behavior goes unpunished. Let me point out that our entire nation has become an "in your face" culture, and any time a dispute pops up there's a good chance someone will call a lawyer. (Is your mental calculator keeping tally here?) My district has compiled two documents: "Student Responsibilities and Rights" and "Consistent Discipline Handbook." I call them the Code of Hammurabi for Teens. The list of transgressions is extensive, each carries a specific punishment, and every disciplinary action must be thoroughly documented so that nobody can claim unequal treatment.

This kind of hidden bureaucracy doesn't get news coverage. And it makes me testy when critics ignorant of burdensome details like these talk about the need to improve "the educational product." Education is a process, not a product, and a lot of it - such as maintaining the rules - can't be quantified, but it can cost you.

So when it comes to deciding how much money schools need, all I can say for sure is that we don't have enough right now. Fortunately, the outlook for next year isn't disastrous in my district, thanks to a special property tax levy that voters in Beaverton approved recently. (Portland voters approved a local income tax to bolster their schools.) Our measure will raise $17 million per year - I'll be contributing about $150 of that - for the next three years. If the levy had failed, downsizing would have been draconian. There isn't enough room here to list all the cuts that were planned, but more than 200 teachers were on the chopping block.

Even with the new levy, my daughter's school will lose some key positions. The office next fall will have only three secretaries instead of four. So the office won't shut down, but some critics will surely claim that its failure to close proves the fourth secretary wasn't needed in the first place. A lot of these arguments make me feel like I'm back on the playground: "Does not! Does TOO! You lie! No, YOU lie!"

But I'm not bailing out. School advocates continue to press for more state funding, and a positive effect of this ordeal is that grass-roots support for public schools has been energized. What nobody can predict is how lawmakers will divide up the meager budget pie. Will they come up with a sensible long-term solution or some kind of desperate quick fix? Regardless, I'll stick with my own lesson plan, helping my daughter get her assignments done on time and explaining to her why public education is important. It's not just test scores. It's how the next generation finds common ground with each other and develops the cultural connections that hold America together.

In spite of criticisms aimed at public schools, thousands of talented kids are emerging from the system each year and they'll do great things someday. I'm hoping one of them will come up with an absolutely flawless, totally noncontroversial way to resolve the school-funding controversy once and for all.

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