Are corporate profits and CEO’s more important than kids? Really? Is that what it comes down to for a majority of Oregonians?
Because the most common argument I’ve heard from many opponents of 97 is that though they’d like to see more revenue for schools, they worry the measure goes too far—that the 2.5% tax on “C” corporation’s sales over $25 million is an economic risk we can’t afford to take. It’s too big. Too much.
Not surprisingly, those on the NO side have done everything in their power to promote and enhance these fears, alleging the measure would force consumers to face price hikes of $600 more a year, shutter family farms and small, Oregon-based corporations, and cost jobs. To be fair, those are legitimate concerns that shouldn’t be taken lightly. What I’m still trying to figure out, however, is why those calculations aren’t taken into account when it comes to educating Oregon’s kids?
Because make no mistake, over the past decade, Oregon’s schools have been devastated. The share of the state budget dedicated to education has shrunk considerably, from 45% in the early 2000’s to around 39% today. Since 2008, Oregon’s lost more than 5,300 full-time positions, most of whom had a direct impact in the classroom: teachers (3,386) and instructional assistants (1,176).
Perhaps then it’s not so surprising our state has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country (74%; the national average is 83%), the third largest class sizes (upwards of 40 in many classes), and one of the shortest school years. In fact, compared to their Washington peers, Oregon students spend a full year less in class over the course of their K-12 education.
What’s crazy is that if 97 doesn’t pass, it’ll get even worse. Because of increasing PERS (the state’s employee pension program) costs, schools face a shortfall of $335 million in the next two years, meaning up to 2,000 teachers could lose their jobs. I say up to, because many districts will probably try to minimize the loss of teachers by balancing their budgets with furlough days. In other words, without an increase in revenue, Oregon’s already large classes will get even bigger, and our already short school year will get even shorter.
That’s pretty dire. But apparently not dire enough to blunt the cries against 97 by nearly every business and newspaper in the state, not to mention many of our citizens. So why don’t we hear the same hysterical sales pitch in favor of school funding we’re hearing now against raising corporate taxes?
It’s one of two things, right? Either: A) people believe the economy to be more fragile and sensitive to adverse change than children, or B) people believe the economy is more important than the quality of education we provide those children. Let’s be abundantly clear: people who are voting NO on 97 believe one or both of these two things. And either way, they’re wrong.
As a teacher, I can speak firsthand to the fact that my students are enormously sensitive to the lack of funding our schools receive. During our overlong summer, their intelligence decreases, measurably (it’s estimated the average student loses about a month of instructional gains over summer). And think about the tremendous disadvantage a student with 40 kids in every class has against a student in another state with only 25—receiving less direct instruction, less intervention, and less feedback from their teachers, counselors, and administrators, compounded over each and every of the 13 years they’re in public school. How’s that going to look on college applications?
In contrast, economies are fairly resilient; one need look no further than northern Europe, where taxes and regulations are far more burdensome than Oregon’s or the United States, and yet, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, etc., boast some of the world’s strongest economies—particularly in manufacturing.
As for the economy being more important than public education, that’s a dangerous game. Because public education provides society not just with future employees, but also with future entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, doctors, soldiers, citizens, and leaders. Our civilization simply does not exist without an educated populace, and yet, given the high level wealth inequality in our society, most parents don’t have the means to send their kids to private school.
Thus, a well-funded system of public education is the best investment we can make to ensure both a strong economy as well as a civilized society, and right now Oregonians have a stark choice: we can ask corporations to pay more in taxes, or we can continue our race to the bottom in state education.
Voters also might want to consider that 97 is a lot less worrisome when viewed through the lens of the legislature. If it passes, legislators will be under tremendous pressure by those who have the most influence on elected officials—namely, the rich and powerful—because they’re the ones who’re going to pay those tax increases. After all, Comcast, Wells Fargo, Safeway, and a bunch of other big corporations saw fit to pour millions into the NO campaign, making it the most expensive political race in Oregon’s history—does anyone really think they’re just going to give up if 97 passes? Of course not. You can bet they’ll be sending their lobbyists down to Salem, and at the end of the day, they’ll probably be successful in watering it down. Indeed, this is perhaps the best of both worlds: schools get some of the revenue they need, and at the same time, businesses are able to pressure the legislature to make 97 less onerous in terms of tax burden.
For this same reason, fears the increased revenue won’t go to schools if 97 passes are shortsighted. Because surely the legislature will assume that voters approved the measure with the understanding that the extra revenue would primarily go to help schools; if that doesn’t happen, every legislator in both houses would face staunch opposition twice in their next reelection campaign: first, in the primaries, and then in the general.
If, on the other hand, 97 fails, legislators will be hard pressed to raise revenue through a tax on corporate sales or any other sort, given that a majority of Oregonians will have just voted against such an increase at the ballot box in a major election year. And it’ll be really easy for ordinary Oregonians who don’t have kids in public school to forget about the inevitable and devastating cuts they won’t be forced to deal with or see everyday. And unfortunately, school children and teachers can’t effectively lobby Salem for more money the way big corporations and the very wealth can, which is probably why nothing’s been done to fix Oregon’s schools up to this point.
And that’s my biggest fear. I’m not aware of anytime corporations or the very wealthy have volunteered—successfully—to have their taxes raised, and my guess is that if 97 doesn’t pass, there won’t be any fix. Our schools will just take the hit, a lot of teachers will lose their jobs, and a new, worse status quo will settle into place. Sure, everyone will bemoan low test scores and poor graduation rates when the next batch of statistics comes out, but then they’ll forget about it.
If that ends up being the case, we’re setting our state up for tremendous failure. Because while those on the NO side suggest corporations might leave our state if 97 passes, the reverse is also true—why would any company want to base itself in Oregon given how chronically underfunded our schools are? Businesses already based here surely share that concern, because they’re at a tremendous recruiting disadvantage when it comes to attracting employees who have children or are planning to in the future.
Obviously, the best answer is some sort of balance: a tax system where the richest Oregonians and corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and our schools are effective, efficient, and well funded. But in striking such a balance, the fact remains that Oregon’s effective tax rate on corporations is one of the lowest in the country, while ordinary working people in this state already pay fairly high property and income taxes. We could enact a sales tax, but does anyone really think that’s going to happen? And even if we did, sales taxes are by their nature regressive, meaning the impact on low income Oregonians would be much worse than those who can most afford to pay more: corporations and the rich and powerful.
In other words, this is our chance. 97 offers us the opportunity to ask those most able to pay more in taxes to do so, and as mentioned above, in whatever ways it’s too burdensome on the economy, the Oregon legislature can step in and fix it.
So please, choose kids over corporate profits. Vote YES on 97.
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