At Oregon’s largest public school districts, the financial decline started in 1992.
That's when voter-approved Measure 5 went into effect, limiting local property taxes and shifting the burden of funding schools to state government.
The result was not all dire: Small, rural districts with tiny local tax bases benefited. Today a one-room schoolhouse outside Madras gets $65,107 per student to pay the Ashwood School District’s two employees and allow children to attend class relatively close to home.
But larger districts and communities that had voted to tax themselves to better fund schools faced drastic cuts in the name of “equalization.”
In Hillsboro, K-12 property-tax collections dropped from $19.64 per $1,000 in assessed value in 1990 to $5 per $1,000 in assessed value today. Restrictions on how property values are assessed, passed in the mid-1990s, have kept collections down still further. Hillsboro schools employ fewer teachers now than they did a decade ago, with fewer electives, even as student populations have grown.
It’s a story repeated in large districts across the state. After Measure 5, Beaverton High School shuttered its award-winning jazz band program. Pendleton schools ceased offering high-school wood shop.
“Measure 5 was a game changer,” says Kathleen Cornett, a vice president with the Oregon Community Foundation, which has made education its biggest funding priority. “In the past, we had sports and arts provided through schools and public funding. Now schools have to rely on little foundations where parents band together to raise money.”
In addition to school foundations, other nonprofits have stepped in to fill the gap, Cornett notes: Kidsports in Eugene, the Boys & Girls Club of Albany. Other nonprofits are looking for new approaches to supporting schools.
“We all want better education. We all know our communities are going to benefit from that. Now let’s see if we can agree about how to move the needle,” says Moore with the Murdock Trust, which awards grants to smaller nonprofits, and which emphasizes taking a different approach from the public sector.
In a recent quarter, the Murdock Trust distributed $11 million in grants across the Pacific Northwest — by no means enough to backfill public funding shortages in Oregon, let alone across the region, Moore acknowledges. But he believes philanthropy can make more effective use of its limited funds.
He cites a philanthropy-backed program to boost science and technology education. “Within the education world, resources for professional development can be very limited,” Moore says. “Business is crying for more graduates with science and technology training.”
But public programs to keep teachers up to date focus on addressing the needs of all educators across subjects rather than the needs of the community. By pairing high school teachers with university-level researchers, Murdock Trust funds provide science-focused continuing education — and then the program funds lab equipment for these teachers’ schools.
“This is an area that government is concerned about, but philanthropy is finding a way to address the need.”