There are no easy answers left to fix our school funding problems. In 2013, we stabilized schools for the first time in a decade. We’re not cutting dozens of days and laying off scores of teachers. In comparison to what came before, that’s progress.

But being stabilized in critical condition isn’t good enough. In 2003, the staff-to-student ratio in Hillsboro’s schools was 21-to-1. Now, 10 years later, it’s 30-to-1. Statewide, we’ve laid off more than 2,000 teachers. Our kids need more services, more electives, more attention, and more class time. Sadly, in school districts across the state, we’re giving students less than what we ourselves were given 20, 40 or 60 years ago.

Since we have stabilized our school funding, we can now, for the first time since 2003, start the conversation about how to make them great again. According to the Quality Education Model, our schools need about $1.9 billion more to be the best they can be — and that’s not going to happen without significant changes in our state’s spending priorities.

Before we start talking about raising taxes (and some already are), we should make sure we are spending our current school dollars well. Right now, we’re not. Take for example the way local governments get to give away school district dollars. In 2013-15, local government tax breaks are projected to cost Oregon schools $378.8 million. These tax breaks go to everything from downtown beautification projects to huge tax abatements. Often these school dollars are spent without input from local school districts or the Oregon Legislature. If those dollars were allowed to go to school districts, the money would allow the state to re-hire every single teacher that’s been laid off in the last 10 years. Heck, we could even re-hire some of the teachers we’ve lost.

Does this mean all these tax breaks are bad? Of course not; some of them bring businesses like Intel to the state that we otherwise wouldn’t have. But does it mean that all of them are worth it? No. In fact, I bet most of us would choose schools over some of these tax breaks in a heartbeat.

This February, I have a bill that would put all school dollars in a “lockbox” to make sure they are used only for school districts. It’s only the start of this discussion — and it’s only one piece of finding the $1.9 billion we need — but it’s an example of why we should re-examine our spending and our priorities.

Our schools are drowning in kids and suffocating from a lack of resources. Cutting the tax break handouts would solve part of the problem.

I am looking forward to the year ahead as we start the tough conversations about how we build the communities we want by creating the school system we deserve.

State Rep. Ben Unger represents Oregon’s 29th Legislative District.

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