Are We Better Off: Class Dismissed

Laid-off teachers, 40-child classes, axed electives, and pay-to-play sports:Is Oregon the future of public education in America?

Bob Allnutt greets me at the door of his geometry class at Hillsboro High School, outside Portland, Oregon. "The key move is the sideways step," he explains, demonstrating how he shimmies between the tightly packed chairs.

"I don't get this!" blurts a student from somewhere in the knot of desks. "I'm working my way over there," Allnutt, a 25-year teaching veteran, calls back as he darts frantically around the class.

There are 38 students in the room, broken up into small groups, and the din of conversation makes it nearly impossible for Allnutt to be heard beyond the first few rows. On the far side of the classroom, a girl sits with her back to the teacher, chatting with friends. A group of four kids crowds around David Henning, 16, one of the few students who seem to understand the assignment. "We help each other out as best we can," says Henning, an earnest-looking sophomore wearing an Old Navy baseball cap. "A lot of the help is from the students around you." The teacher, he adds matter-of-factly, can't possibly get to everyone.

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It's a typical classroom scene in Oregon -- and in a growing number of other states where a confluence of budget cuts, federal underfunding, and a nationally orchestrated anti-tax crusade has left public schools facing the worst funding crisis in decades. "The good students are going to survive," says Charlie Cleveland, a social studies teacher at Hillsboro High. "And the students at the other end are going to get special help -- we have programs mandated by law for them. It's the big group in the middle that are just jammed together.

"Some of them will make it through," he concludes. "But I see a lot that don't."

Once known for its well-funded, innovative schools, Oregon is fast becoming the nation's educational basket case. In January 2003, the state legislature asked voters to approve a temporary half-percent income-tax rate increase to help plug a growing budget deficit. When voters turned down the increase, nearly 100 school districts -- close to half the districts in the state -- were forced to close some of their schools early. Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland, lopped nearly a month off the school year, closing the doors on its 19,000 students after only 159 days of school (the mandatory minimum in most states is around 180 days).

It is not just the schools that are imploding. Oregon's economy is a shambles, with the highest unemployment rate in the nation for much of the last two years (it currently stands at 7.7 percent) and one of the nation's largest state-budget shortfalls (last year, the projected deficit climbed to $850 million, or 17 percent of Oregon's general-fund budget). Battered by recession and the decline of its high-tech and forestry industries, Oregon has seen its revenues plummet in the past few years. The result: State services are unraveling. Last year, about 8,000 low-income Oregonians lost state-sponsored prescription-drug coverage, and an estimated 1,600 drug-treatment and mental-health workers were laid off. State troopers were let go, many courthouses went to a four-day week, and inmates were released early from county jails.

Oregon is not alone. A string of budget crises -- in fiscal year 2005, states will confront budget deficits totaling $35 billion -- has forced spending cuts in nearly every state. One cause is the weak economy; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research organization, states collected $22 billion less in taxes in the 2002-03 budget year than they did in 2000-01.

But federal policies have also helped drive state budgets deeper into the red. States are losing revenue because of the Bush tax cuts -- the elimination of the estate tax alone will cost states an estimated $10 billion -- while spending more to implement federal mandates that the president and Congress have left unfunded. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, for example, requires a vast range of testing and tutoring programs; yet the administration's current budget falls more than $9 billion short of what's needed to fund the programs

Extreme Bake Sales

In these days of tax cuts and unfunded federal mandates, cash-strapped schools are turning to ever more desperate means to pay for essentials—like, say, teachers.

Attempting to raise $70,000 to save one of the five teaching positions at the public Family School in Eugene, Oregon, parents and friends of the school held a blood-plasma drive. They raised $1,500.

Last March, schools in 16 states took part in McDonald's "McTeacher's Night." Instructors and principals flipped Big Macs for an evening to earn their schools a part of the night's take. Mickey-D's says the stunt yielded $700,000 for more than 1,000 schools—less than $700 apiece.

For $100,000, the Brooklawn, New Jersey, school district sold the naming rights to a school gymnasium to the Shoprite supermarket chain. "The only alternative," the school superintendent said, "would be to raise taxes and create literally intergenerational warfare," in a town that's 40 percent senior citizens.

In 2003, Nobelsville, Indiana, lost $842,000 in state education funding. The principal of the Intermediate School—which is considering charging kids to join the math club—agreed to get a green Mohawk if students could raise more than $30,000 in a jog-a-thon. To redo their principal's 'do, students raised $41,341.

After Junction City, Oregon, schools cut art, music, and gym classes, laid off three teachers, and eliminated all field trips, a dozen local farmers pitched in by modeling for a nude pinup calendar. The $17 "Full Monty"-style pictorial was a hit, raking in more than $255,000.

Hoping to pay for teachers' salaries, the school-district foundation in Lake Oswego, Oregon, borrowed money to invest in a bingo hall. It pulled out 10 weeks later after losing $51,000. -- Peter Meredith

As states embark on their second and third rounds of budget cutting, kids are taking some of the hardest hits. In Texas, an estimated 160,000 children are projected to lose coverage under the Children's Health Insurance program. At least 32 states have proposed restricting access to child-care subsidies. Nineteen states have cut back K-12 expenditures in the last two years, and nationally, the rate of growth for education spending has dropped to its lowest point since the 1990-91 recession.

Schools around the country are reeling from the cuts. In California, where 3,800 teachers and 9,000 other school employees received pink slips last year, districts have cut textbook purchases, summer school, bus routes, maintenance, athletics, student newspapers, and electives. Half of the school districts in Kansas have cut staff; several districts have gone to a four-day week; and 50 schools in Kansas now charge students to participate in some extracurricular activities. In Michigan, funding for gifted and talented students is down 95 percent; Buffalo, New York, has been forced to close eight schools and eliminate 600 teaching jobs over the past three years.

Even against this grim backdrop, Oregon's schools are dealing with a crisis of staggering proportions. Last August, following voters' rejection of the income-tax increase and desperate to stop cuts in education and social programs, the Republican-controlled legislature passed an $800 million package of mostly temporary income and other tax increases, with $300 million of it earmarked for education. The taxes would have cost a household with the state's median $45,000 annual income about $36 a year.

But then, a national conservative group brought its anti-tax crusade to Oregon. Within days of the bill's passage, Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington-based organization chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, launched a ballot measure campaign to repeal the tax package. CSE spent nearly half a million on the campaign; Oregon, Armey declared, would be the next round in a nationwide "tax revolt." At the time, CSE was also fighting to defeat a tax increase in Alabama -- a measure the state's Republican governor, Bob Riley, said was his state's only chance to stop being "last in all the things that are good, first in all the things that are bad." Following the defeat of the tax increase last fall, Alabama, which is 48th in the nation in per-student spending, cut another $54 million from school programs.

On February 3, Oregonians voted 59-to-41 percent to repeal the tax increases, forcing the state to cut another half-billion dollars of public spending. Approximately $300 million in cuts will come from the schools.

 

Hillsboro is not where you would ordinarily look for schools in crisis. An anchor community in Oregon's Silicon Forest, it is the state's sixth-largest city and its fourth-largest school district. Hillsboro is home to the rambling campus of computer chip maker Intel; Nike's gleaming world headquarters sits just over the city line in neighboring Beaverton. Throughout the community, crisp new row houses are sprouting alongside aging split-levels. New housing developments sprawl out into converted farmland. Hillsboro is a place where families want to live, as evidenced by the influx of 3,000 new students into the local schools since 1996.

Hillsboro High School -- Hilhi to the locals -- is the oldest of four high schools in town. It's a tranquil campus of cream-colored buildings and open-air walkways that have been added on as the school has grown. There are no metal detectors at the entrance and no cops seen patrolling the grounds; during class periods there's hardly a soul in the halls.

But the appearance of normalcy belies a school at the breaking point. After closing early in 2003, Hillsboro officials vowed not to cut school days this year. So they balanced the books the way so many other Oregon schools have: They cut teaching positions, slashed course offerings, and defunded activities.

This year, Hillsboro eliminated more than 200 positions, or 12 percent of its staff. All sports are now pay-to-play. Students must pay $175 per sport; teams such as golf, swimming, and tennis are now "club" activities, and expenses for uniforms, equipment, and training can run to more than $500. Elementary school band funding has been axed, and staffing for physical education and music has been cut in half. Both of Hilhi's librarians were cut; guidance positions have also been eliminated, so two counselors now advise 700 students each. The student-teacher ratio is up 20 percent (from 25-to-1 in 1996 to 30-to-1); classes now routinely have between 35 and 45 students, and one math class had 51 students in September.

In Charlie Cleveland's social studies classroom, the walls are adorned with peace slogans, protest signs, and posters for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix concerts. "We're doing a unit on the '60s," he explains with a smile. Cleveland, Hilhi's girls' lacrosse coach and a 26-year teaching veteran, uses a wheelchair. With as many as 40 students per class, his rooms have become so crowded he finds it hard to move around; some of his students now sit on bar stools that he bought at Goodwill.

Cleveland says the cuts to extracurricular programs, small classes, and electives, such as his Model United Nations course, are undermining his relationships with students. "Those activities are where real connections are made," he explains. "You can only do so much in the classroom." As teachers work longer hours and struggle to manage crowded classrooms, administrators complain that Oregon is increasingly losing qualified teachers to other states.

Across town from Hilhi, in a neighborhood of new pastel-colored houses, is the gleaming, four-year-old Orenco Elementary School. Karen Sprecher, a second-grade teacher, hovers over her class as the seven-year-olds write and illustrate stories. "This is the key time in education -- we're teaching kids to read and write," Sprecher says, her tone almost pleading. When Sprecher began teaching 21 years ago, she had 18 students in her elementary school class. Motioning to the 30 children buzzing around the room, she shakes her head. "Some days feel almost impossible." When I ask how the students cope with the packed classroom, a girl named Sharon pipes up: If she needs help and Ms. Sprecher is busy, "we can write her a letter."

Studies have shown that reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade can dramatically improve student performance all the way to high school and reduce the rate at which students drop out. That's why between 1999 and 2001, Congress invested $4.1 billion to help states and local school districts reduce class sizes. More than 37,000 teachers were hired nationwide as a result. But with thousands of teachers now being laid off, class sizes are ballooning to levels never seen before in many schools. Years of educational reform are being undone. "Kids who need help aren't going to get it," laments Sprecher. "And it's going to create kids with greater needs down the line."

 

Oregon's crisis is man-made, and one of the men who made it is Russ Walker. He is the cheery, 36-year-old Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, the anti-tax group that led the fight against the state's $800 million tax bailout. Today he's explaining the cold logic of tax cuts to a lunchtime crowd at the Chamber of Commerce in Forest Grove, the town adjoining Hillsboro.

CSE describes itself as "an army of activists" and as "grassroots citizens dedicated to free markets and limited government." Much of the organization's funding at the national level, however, comes from large corporations and right-wing foundations: Among the group's major donors in recent years are General Electric, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Eli Lilly, CIGNA, Archer Daniels Midland, Shell, and Unilever. "While CSE purports to be a grassroots voice of consumers," Public Citizen said in a 2000 report, "it is, more accurately, a front group for corporate lobbying interests." The Washington Post has detailed how, in the late 1990s, CSE led the fight to torpedo a multibillion-dollar federal plan to restore the Everglades -- while collecting $700,000 in contributions from the state's three largest sugar companies, which had thousands of acres of cane-growing land at stake. CSE has also taken in more than $1 million from Philip Morris while it campaigned against cigarette taxes.

Despite its corporate ties, Citizens for a Sound Economy's anti-tax campaign received only a lukewarm response from Oregon's business community. Of four major statewide business associations, only one -- the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business -- heeded CSE's call to oppose the tax package. Two groups remained neutral while the Oregon Business Association, which includes Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Hanna Andersson, and other Oregon-based companies, favored the taxes.

"It's in business' short- and long-term interest to maintain a level of public services that keep them viable," says Paul Kelly, Nike's global director of public affairs. The company is concerned, he notes, that prospective hires are asking pointed questions about the state's troubled school system. "If you lose that viability, it's not good for business, not good for recruiting, and not good for businesses trying to grow here." Nike contributed $8,000 to support the pro-tax campaign, even though it would have cost the company some $1 million in taxes over the next two years. "I don't think he speaks for business," Kelly says of CSE's Russ Walker.

The Chamber of Commerce luncheon features Walker and state Rep. Mary Gallegos, the state legislator representing Hillsboro and Forest Grove. A year ago, the two were fast allies. She was a rock-ribbed anti-abortion, anti-tax conservative elected to her first term in 2002. Walker, the former political director of Oregon Right to Life, had supported her campaign. But to the shock of Walker and others, Gallegos -- along with 10 other Republican state House members -- broke with her party last August to vote for the tax increase. Quickly dubbed the Rat Bastard Caucus, the group has been the target of furious attacks from fellow Republicans. Several of them have retired from politics.

Gallegos, a graduate of Hilhi and a mother of three school-age kids, is impassioned as she speaks about supporting the tax package. "People have to decide what kind of community they want to have," she says. "I value the services we provide to seniors, children, and having a safe community." Walker counters that the $800 million in state spending could be saved through efficiencies and outsourcing. The exchange grows heated as Walker accuses the Rat Bastards of "subverting" the Republican leadership, and Gallegos rebuts that she has yet to see a "credible, true, and honest" way to fix the state budget without raising taxes. Then Forest Grove's superintendent of schools rises to ask a question.

Square-jawed and with a silver buzz cut, Jack Musser looks more like a Marine than a school administrator. He jabs a finger at Walker, who has just rattled off some statistics on how excessive and inefficient Oregon's education spending is. "Do you know where Oregon ranks in SAT scores? Do you know?" he presses, like a teacher grilling an unprepared student. Walker does not. Oregon is second in the nation in SAT scores, Musser says, but 39th in taxes. "You want to be proud of your schools, your police, and firefighters? You gotta pay for 'em."

The latest statistics from the National Education Association show that school spending per student fell more sharply in Oregon in 2002-03 than in any other state, dropping Oregon from 22nd in the nation in K-12 spending to 31st. Oregon now has the fourth-highest student-teacher ratio in the country -- more than 20-to-1, almost double the ratio in Vermont. In Musser's district, schools were forced to close six days early in 2003, and they will probably shave five days off the current school year. He had to eliminate 27 positions last year and anticipates more cuts. He concedes that a tax increase is a Band-Aid measure. "But when you're bleeding, it's kind of nice to have a Band-Aid."

 

On february 3, the national anti-tax movement celebrated the defeat of Oregon's tax increases. A triumphant Dick Armey warned politicians, "Think twice next time you try to pass the burden of higher taxes onto working American families and business. CSE and our nationwide network of activists will hold you accountable."

In the run-up to the referendum, Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski warned that he had no magic bullets to soften the impact of the budget cuts, which are expected to result in more cuts to health care, more teacher layoffs, and more school closings. "I'm trying to get the public to believe that when the government says something in fact will happen that, in fact, it will happen," he said.

But not everyone in Oregon will feel the pain. The state's wealthier communities, including Beaverton and Multnomah County, have passed local taxes within the last year to make up for the state cuts. (Hillsboro officials say they didn't push for a local tax increase because they felt it couldn't garner the required "double majority" -- a majority of votes, cast in an election where at least 50 percent of all registered voters go to the polls.)

Meanwhile, those who can afford it are increasingly pulling their kids out of the public schools. The Catlin Gabel School, a prestigious private school in Portland, says applications to its middle school have surged by 25 percent this year. High-school tuition at Catlin Gabel, which boasts an average ratio of seven students to every teacher, is $17,000 per year. "I think more people want to come here because the public schools are becoming so impoverished," says the school's director, Lark Palma.

The growing gap between rich and poor districts, in Oregon and elsewhere, comes at a time when courts around the country are ordering states to give students adequate educational opportunities, no matter where they live. "We've finally convinced the courts of the need for change," says Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a citizens group that won a landmark school-equity lawsuit against New York. "Then we hit this wall of people who are saying it is the sacred obligation of states not to raise taxes or to keep cutting taxes. It is irrational, inequitable, and probably unconstitutional."

While grown-ups argue, kids are getting angry. "You can't learn," says Hilhi student council member Craig Dobbs, 18. "Some people just give up. With 46 people in class, you can't concentrate on someone who is slipping through the cracks. If they are talking about cutting school days, the teacher can't slow down."

Some students are simply leaving their struggling schools. The number of students opting to graduate early from Hilhi has doubled in the past two years, notes principal Dottie Bertelli. "When they are faced with the dilemma of a class with 40 students, they ask, 'Why am I hanging around?'"

Bertelli, like many administrators and teachers in Hillsboro, barely conceals her anger. "I have spent my whole life educating kids, and here I am closing school and sending them home early. I feel that what I have chosen for my life's work has been devalued by the state of Oregon. How can kids not feel that they are devalued?"

Cara Miller, a vivacious 16-year-old who is on the Hilhi soccer and track teams and the student council, scowls at the mention of budget cuts. "All these adults say, 'We don't want to pay for school.' And I say, 'Well, you went to school. Did someone do this to you?'"

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