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Property-Tax Limit Forces Cuts in Oregon

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Although Oregon has escaped the worst of the current recession, that has been little comfort for the education schools at the state's two leading universities, which have endured budget cutbacks as severe as those anywhere in the country.

Oregon's fiscal crisis stems not from the slow economy but from a 1990 ballot initiative limiting property taxes.

The constitutional amendment also required the state to make up the difference in local property-tax revenues lost by the public elementary and secondary schools. That mandate has put severe pressure on the state budget, forcing lawmakers to order major cuts in other programs.

Since voters approved the tax-limit measure, the University of Oregon has eliminated its entire elementary teacher-training program, most of its secondary-education program, and its graduate studies in curriculum and instruction. Oregon State University, meanwhile, has shut down its college of education altogether and created a new college of home economics and education with a much smaller faculty and student enrollment.

The education-school deans at the two institutions offer different assessments of the changes their schools have experienced in the past year or so.

Robert Gilberts, who will retire as dean this year after 22 years at the University of Oregon, called the cuts "a serious blow'' to a college of education once considered among the best in the country.

"It's a shame that the leading liberal-arts university in the state is not training teachers in the academic disciplines,'' Mr. Gilberts said. "That, to me, is a real loss of quality resources for the public schools of Oregon.''

Wayne Haverson, the acting dean at Oregon State's school of education, now merged with home economics, is more sanguine about his program.

"It was very painful,'' Mr. Haverson said of the process of cutting his budget by about one-third. "But there has been great benefit to us.''

The school fired its entire faculty and rehired only professors who fit a new model of teacher preparation based on training teachers for the state's radically restructured education system.

Oregon is moving toward ungraded K-3 schools, middle schools of grades 4-10 built around mastery tests, and certificates of mastery in vocational or academic programs for students in their last two years of school.

"We would not have been able to rethink the program the way we did'' without being able to lay off tenured faculty, Mr. Haverson explained. "Now, we're in a much better position to train teachers for the 21st century.''

But the worst might not be over in Oregon.

Lawmakers are scrambling to come up with new revenues, and the state's universities may face another 20 percent budget reduction in the next fiscal year.--D.G.

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