Think again

Getting beyond the five stages of grief for Oregon education

President, Oregon AFL-CIO

Listen to almost any discussion of the prospects for repairing our education system in Oregon today, and you’re likely to hear a dysfunctional version of what psychologists call the five stages of grief.

The latest example: A meeting of the state’s Board of Higher Education last month, at which my colleagues on the board struggled with the problem of how we can keep our public universities up to par without jacking up tuition for students who are already hard-pressed to pay what we’re charging now.

Here’s how our discussion went.

Stage 1: We will soon have to replace a whole generation of retiring faculty members, whose salaries have fallen far behind those of their counterparts in other universities. Further, we’ll have to staff up and expand our programs to teach the growing numbers of high school graduates and young adults who want a college education. And, we’ll have to do all this while keeping tuition within the reach of working families.

Stage 2: This will require more investment, which means more money, which means more taxes.

Stage 3: But the public is in no mood to approve higher taxes. So, we can’t ask them for more money.

Stage 4: Let’s focus on accountability and efficiencies and continue to do more with less until the public sees that we are doing the best we can.

Stage 5: When the public recognizes that we’re doing everything we can to make ends meet, we can talk about the money.

We were discussing the future of higher education, but we could just as well have been talking about our K-12 education system. Stage 1 would list larger class sizes, shorter school years, aging text books, shrinking programs and increasing fees for sports and extracurricular activities. But the remaining stages would still apply. It’s the same story of grief.

I have been hearing this analysis for more than a decade now. It’s an analysis that leads to paralysis. It’s a dead-end.

As a taxpayer and a higher education board member, I know we need to manage government for accountability and efficiency. But that’s a day-in and day-out job that’s never done. No matter how much more we do with how much less, Stage 5 will never come.

At some point this exercise in grief has to confront reality. And the reality is that our capacity to maintain a high-quality education system has been steadily eroded, year in and year out, because of continual budget crises at the state level.

What causes these crises, which we seem to experience both in bad times and good? It’s not that spending is out of control, as the anti-government crowd contends. We’re spending less now, as a percentage of personal income, than we did a decade ago, and we’re collecting less revenue from Oregon taxpayers. But it’s hard to convince working families of this fact — because they’re paying almost as much in taxes as they did in the early 1990s. The reality is that Oregon’s businesses, primarily our largest and most profitable corporations, have been paying less and less.

At our higher education board meeting, we heard that Oregon is now 40th of the 50 states in our level of taxation. But we didn’t hear an even more revealing fact — that when it comes to business taxes, we’re now 49th or 50th of the 50 states, according to recent studies. If working families are paying as much of their incomes in taxes as ever before, but our schools keep cutting back because businesses are paying less, it’s no wonder that the voters are skeptical of government and resistant to new taxes — because they’re getting less for the taxes they’re paying. This is why we’re stuck in this cycle of political grief, in which we continually if reluctantly accept a wait-til-next-year approach to addressing our school funding problems.

Many business leaders, including colleagues of mine who are doing a great job on the higher education board, say they’re committed to improving our education system. But their corporations aren’t doing their part. Just the opposite: They have been lobbying for tax cuts in every session of the Legislature and pocketing more tax breaks that have reduced business tax support for schools by almost half since 1990.

We can be sensitive to the needs of business in Oregon and still insist that they pay their fair share for our education system. There are many fair and reasonable ways to do this, including a minimum tax of 2 percent on corporate profits, which would raise $400 million a biennium.

Confronting the reality of the unfairness of Oregon’s tax system is the best therapy for the psychological rut we’re in now. Once we recognize the root causes of this crippling cycle of grief, we can begin to work our way out of it and repair our education system from grade school to grad school. It might cost a little, but no more than our most profitable corporations can afford to pay.

Tim Nesbitt is president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at