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Great SSF presentation, and 'What's the Number?' Print E-mail

chuck-bennett.jpgby Chuck Bennett, Director of Governmental Affairs


'Thumbs up' PowerPoint review

I’ll confess right out of the chute I’m not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations unless they’re part of a travelogue. My worst nightmare is a warm afternoon of slide reading as they flash onto the screen.  And when I say nightmare I mean I have fallen asleep and am jarred awake when my neighbor rips off a snore and then sounds like a candidate for the Heimlich maneuver.

I now have an exception to my “avoid-PowerPoint-presentations-at-all-costs” rule. It’s one I saw last week during a meeting of the House Interim Committee on Revenue. It was the work of Michael Elliott from the Oregon Department of Education.

Elliott took on one of the toughest issues in tax policy – explaining the state school fund formula – and he did a remarkable job of both clarifying its policy methods and objectives and explaining how it came to be.  Take a look at the presentation soothingly entitled, “Welcome to Your State School Fund.” Then, if you have the opportunity, invited him to one of your meetings and get the full value that comes with his outstanding discussion that goes with it.

Don’t think this is just an intellectual exercise. The reason he discussed the issue with the legislative committee is that there is a very likely chance there will be several legislative bills aimed at changes to the formula. I’ve been down this road enough to know that most folks don’t understand the formula, its purpose and perhaps most importantly, that it’s a distribution plan – not a spending plan. After years of listening to radio talk show hosts, it was also refreshing to have it explained that the amount spent per student is not a grant to the student for assignment in some future voucher scheme.

So, What’s the Number?

First, it’s very early in the game to set a goal for the State School Fund for 2013-15. We still have almost a year’s worth of state Revenue Forecasts before anyone knows how much money is on the table to fund Oregon government and local schools.  That said, let’s take a look at how the number might be determined.

“The Number,” as we affectionately refer to it, is the share of state revenues that goes to the State School Fund. Over the past several biennia it has been a steadily reduced share of the state General Fund. Right now it’s about 39.1% of the fund. That’s down from a high of 44.8% in 2003-05 but up slightly from 38.8% in 2009-11. The simplest way to determine where the figuring starts is to look at where the General Fund will be – and, based on the September forecast, it will be down slightly from the previous forecast by about $250 million. That means the current best estimate, if schools retain their previous share of the General Fund, is about $6.35 billion. The Quality Education Commission has done a re-do on funding needs and reset its target for school spending – to put the state school system on a trajectory to meet the ambitious 40/40/20 goal – at $6.895 billion.

What’s missing from these numbers is the poetry of politics – the slogans.  It usually sounds something like, “We’re still alive at 6.5,” or “Good but not great at $6.8.” Beyond that number you’re trying to rhyme with 7 and about all that works is “heaven.”

The speculation out there right now is something like this. Start with a basic funding level for the State School Fund that is a bit higher than our current share of the budget. Figure in the usual “carve outs” for specific programs or projects. Then add the funding that is expected to come as “key investments” funding.  It is hard right now to estimate which programs being reviewed by the Oregon Education Investment Board will be brought forward for funding, but programs on the table right now conservatively add up to about $500 million worth of possibilities. Simple math gets the total to around the “good but not great” level, which seems to be a minimum funding level needed to show we’re serious about investing in education and putting us on a path toward achieving 40/40/20.

Missing in all that figuring are the real numbers that matter: one governor, 31 members of the House of Representatives (a majority) and 16 Senators (another majority). If that doesn’t add up, you’ve got nada. And those numbers are being decided in November when half the Senate and all of the House are up for election. Without these basic numbers, all of the other discussions are very speculative. We’ll take another look after the election and see if all of this multiplication, addition and slogan writing needs a serious factor of reality added to it.


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This page was last updated on Monday, October 01, 2012 .