This is, by almost any measure, the worst economic recession since the great depression. The recession has hit Oregon public schools particularly hard, given their dependence on the state's general fund and the general fund's dependence on income taxes. Because of the volatile nature of education funding in the state, the Education Stability Fund (ESF) was created to help cushion the blow to schools from economic downturns.
Given all that, why are legislators so reticent to spend all of the ESF? Why create a fund you are reluctant to use at the very moment it was designed for? Here is The Oregonian's Kimberly Melton on recent developments in the state legislature:
In recent weeks, there is growing legislative support for giving K-12 schools some additional money, likely $50 million to $100 million from the education reserves. In everyday terms, that money could pay for up to 1,100 teachers or a full week of school for all students in the state.
In March, the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means recommended a $5.7 billion budget for K-12 schools, but said they would consider an additional $56 million for 2012-13 if the economy improves. But advocates haven't given up, saying that money is needed immediately to help blunt devastating reductions.
Their goal is still the additional $100 million they asked for initially, but as end-of-session negotiations intensify, many say $56 million is turning into viable middle ground that could help meet a variety of needs. The $56 million figure would give schools the same amount that they received for 2009-11.
I honestly don't understand the thinking behind not spending all you can. Research shows that temporary disruptions, such as large classes, even for just a year or two have long lasting impacts on student performance. The economy is recovering (albeit painfully slowly) so it is unlikely we'll need the ESF in the near future - but students are suffering now.
The state's Education Stability Fund is intended to help buffer schools during an economic recession. Three-fifths of each legislative chamber must approve any action to remove any of that money -- expected to grow to $300 million over the next two years. State legislators can tap the fund only in times of economic crisis or if the governor declares an emergency. As the state revenue forecasts begin to improve, some advocates fear that lawmakers will not be able to make those funds available during next year's session, as they originally intended.
"I think everyone can agree that there's at least $56 million available for K-12," said Democratic Majority leader Dave Hunt. "It's in the Education Stability Fund. Do we leave it under a mattress or invest it in our kids? I think that's an easy choice."
Indeed, but why only $56 million?
Economist Patrick Emerson is the author of the Oregon Economics Blog.