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Election Postmortem

Corporations Win, Public Schools Lose

As EW readers continue to regain balance after the presidential election, we want to reflect on two education-related measures: Measure 97, the tax on large corporations, and Measure 98, the high school graduation initiative.

Who won?  Large corporations, that’s who.

An estimated record $28 million was ponied up by big corporations to defeat Measure 97. We mean big:  Walmart, Ford, CVS, Boise Cascade, PGE, Weyerhaeuser, etc. 

The No On 97 campaign cast the measure as a sales tax that corporations would just pass on to us — an ironic position, considering many of these same corporations have actively advocated for an Oregon sales tax for years.

Their $10 million advantage enabled the corporations to build on a general mistrust of the legislature, a skepticism toward public sector unions and a belief that those same unions will not do anything productive to help fix the PERS mess. Legislators and unions have serious work to do to increase public trust.

Corporations played a major role in Measure 98, also — the one that did pass. It requires the Oregon Legislature to fund dropout prevention and career/college readiness programs beginning in 2018 through grants to Oregon high schools of at least $800 per student, with the state monitoring the programs. Great idea! Who would oppose this no-brainer? 

We did.

The main petitioner was Stand for Children, Inc. and its Stand for Children Leadership Center, with assets of more than $24 million, backed by ExxonMobil, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Jim Walton, the Walmart founder, among others. The Register-Guard reported additional big money flowed into their coffers: millions of dollars in anonymous contributions. Why anonymous? And why would these big fish weigh in on an Oregon high school ballot measure? We know that donated money often comes with strings attached, right? So, who wants large corporate powerhouses (who don’t pay their fair share of taxes) pulling strings and having a strong influence on our local and state system of public education? We don’t.

As longtime teachers, we certainly do not oppose hands-on learning, college and career readiness or dropout prevention programs. We worked hard in local schools to engage our students and to inspire them to be active, lifelong learners. The problems with Measure 98 are twofold: the funding part and the control part. 

Estimates for implementing this new law range from $147 million (R-G) to $300 million (Portland State Rep. Lew Frederick’s office). Where will the money come from?

Since the Legislature is now looking at a $1.4 billion shortfall (with Measure 97’s failure), the Legislature must look elsewhere — perhaps taking the funds from K-8 education or from Senior Services or Human Services. Wait. What?

Then there’s the fine print in Measure 98, which strengthens the increasing control that the Oregon Department of Education has on our local school districts and schools. The elaborate paperwork demands tied to Measure 98 will detract from time and attention meant for students.  

Through “corporate education reform,” we see the continued diminishing of local control and the continued increasing of corporate influence on public education across the U.S., including Oregon: corporate-initiated legislation, corporate development of the curriculum and ever-increasing standardized testing. Measure 98 now puts local high schools under even more control of a state “accountability” bureaucracy that is increasingly comfortable with the “corporate educational model.”

There is nothing democratic about turning our public schools over to increasing corporate influence and mandates. Do you really believe giant corporations want an informed citizenry, equipped to effectively advocate for their rights?

Our community, our state, our entire country must double down on democracy — meaning educated, engaged citizens participating continually in public policy debates — not just in election years. A strong functioning American democracy requires the habit, the awareness and the confidence to analyze issues and take effective action. Then big money influence is reduced. If not, our democracy is severely weakened.

Rachel Rich, Larry Lewin and Roscoe Caron are retired middle and high school teachers in Eugene and Springfield. They are members of the Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE), dedicated to preserving our public schools to foster students to grow into critical thinkers and active citizens of our democracy. Because our mission is educating the public on these issues, we invite any and all to join us in conversations over the future of public education in our state. Find us at oregoncape.org