Ore. Educators Facing Showdown Over Ballot Initiatives
Oregon voters are considering several ballot measures this November that education leaders in the state say would seriously damage public schools. Taken together, they say, the proposals would trigger severe school budget cuts, weaken the voice of teachers' unions, and foster intolerance in the classroom.
"This is truly the most horrific onslaught we have ever seen," said Kathryn Firestone, the president of the Oregon PTA. "Our kids are going to get squashed."
But that's not what the initiative's supporters say.
They believe that proposals to change the tax system would place needed curbs on government spending, while a pay-for-performance initiative would make teachers more accountable. They argue that one of the measures would safeguard students, by barring instruction that promotes homosexual lifestyles, while two others would stop Oregonians' paychecks from being used to back political causes that the wage-earners may not support.
In sum, ballot-measure proponents believe that their detractors are overreacting.
"Their only answer seems to be more money," Becky Miller, the executive assistant of Oregon Taxpayers United, an organization backing two tax measures, said of the proposal's opponents. "My answer is we have to look outside the box because people don't have any more money to give."
Of the 193 statewide ballot measures up for voter consideration this fall, Oregon leads the nation with 26 of them, said M. Dane Waters, the president of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonprofit education research organization.
Nationally, 11 measures, including three in Oregon, deal explicitly with education. But educators also are closely monitoring several tax initiatives that they say could cost public schools millions of dollars in state funding, including three in Oregon.
While supporters of those tax proposals are playing up what they see as a need to decrease Oregonians' tax burden, Mr. Waters said opponents are focusing on raising voters' doubts.
"Voters are less likely to vote for tax reforms if they have an adverse effect on education," he said. "If they're uncertain, they'll vote to maintain the status quo."
Major Losses Feared
Oregon Taxpayers United, a conservative advocacy group, wrote the proposed measure that would allow Oregonians to deduct federal income taxes from their state tax returns. Ms. Miller said the initiative would end double taxation and control state spending.
The group also proposed an initiative that would require voter approval of all fees, local taxes, or other charges—a measure aimed at ensuring that the state didn't use those means to recoup lost tax revenue.
The Committee for Our Oregon, a coalition organized to defeat three tax-related ballot measures—including the two Oregon Taxpayers United proposals—argues that voters will lose more than they gain if they support the initiatives.
"Most people think they're going to get a big fat check in the mail," said Eddie Miller, the Committee for Our Oregon's spokesman, who is not related to Becky Miller. "The schools will suffer, and people won't get what they think they're going to get."
The state elections division estimates that a measure that would link the growth in state government spending to the rise in Oregonians' personal income would by itself reduce state revenues by $5.7 billion over two years. Allowing taxpayers to deduct their federal income taxes, the division estimates, would cost the state another $2 billion over the same period.
Since the state spends about 45 percent of its general fund on K- 12 schools, and state money makes up about 80 percent of schools' budgets, the tax proposals' effects could range from "very damaging to devastating," said Frank P. McNamara, a funding advocate for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. The Oregon Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, estimates that the budgets of individual schools would have to be cut by as much as $400,000 if some of the tax measures passed.
Meanwhile, Gov. John A. Kitzhaber has joined forces with state Superintendent of Schools Stan Bunn to push a ballot measure aimed at making the legislature more accountable for funding schools adequately. Mr. Kitzhaber, a Democrat, supports requiring lawmakers to give schools enough money to meet the state's education goals, or to explain the effect on schools if they fell short
Oregon Taxpayers United also wants to amend the state constitution to make teachers more accountable, by linking their salary increases and job security to student performance. The Oregon Education Association says the performance-pay measure, coupled with proposals expected to curtail the union's political activities, is a direct attack on the teachers' group.
"This measure will not only silence OEA, it will silence all Oregon workers," union President James K. Sager said last week.
While money matters are dominating much of the debate, another Oregon initiative causing widespread concern would prevent public schools from instruction that "encourages, promotes, or sanctions" homosexuality or bisexuality. The measure is the first of its kind nationally, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute.
Oregon educators say classes on homosexuality don't exist. But Lon T. Mabon, the chairman of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, a conservative organization that originated the initiative, argued that diversity lessons in schools wrongly condone gay lifestyles.
"To us, that's promoting, encouraging and sanctioning—from a school perspective—these behaviors," Mr. Mabon said. "It's immoral." He noted that, under the measure, violators would be fined.
Ms. Firestone, who also is a board member of the National PTA, said the alliance's measure threatens sex education and AIDS-prevention programs, as well as counseling and support programs.
"Students have a right to be respected, tolerated, and safe in their own schools," she said.
With the ballot-measure campaigns starting to heat up this month, Oregonians are just beginning to take notice of the issues, said James D. Moore, a political science professor at the University of Portland.
As they do, a newly formed coalition of educators, community groups, and businesses is mounting an aggressive campaign to fight the measures perceived as threats to education. The National Education Association has given the OEA $1 million to fight a number of the measures.
Duncan Wyse, the president of the Oregon Business Council, an organization that represents 40 large companies in the state, said most of the business community is opposed to the measures seen as threatening funding for schools."While on the surface they may appear to benefit business," he said, "it's bad for Oregon."
Vol. 20, Issue 4, Pages 17,22