History of school funding

1830s -- New England pioneer John Ball opens the first “public” school for “half-blood” children of fur trappers who frequent Fort Vancouver.

1849 -- The Reverend George Atkinson authors Oregon Territory’s first body of school law, which includes the following principles: (1) education should be free; (2) control should be decentralized and local; (3) a permanent school fund should be established; (3) professional standards should be established to provide for the certification of teachers; (4) schools should be tax-supported; and (5) educational institutions should practice religious freedom.

1850 -- Territorial Legislature imposes a two mill (two tenths of a cent) territorial tax for distribution to local school districts in proportion to the number of children between the ages of 4 and 21.

1854 -- Territorial Legislature makes county commissioners responsible for levying the two mill tax and provides for election of a county school superintendent responsible for annually apportioning tax proceeds to school districts based on the number of persons in the district between the ages of 4 and 21.

1855 -- County School Fund tax is reduced to one mill (one tenth of a cent).

1857 -- Oregon Constitution is written and approved by a vote of the people of the Oregon Territory. It includes provisions for the establishment of:

  • A uniform, and general system of Common schools (Article VIII, Section 3)
  • The Common (Irreducible) School Fund (Article VIII, Section 2), which provided for the distribution of income to school districts from the sale of land given to the state by the federal government.
  • Distribution formula for school fund income (Article VIII, Section 4) by counties in proportion to the number of children between the ages of 4 and 20 years.
  • The position of a statewide Superintendent of Public Instruction (Article VIII, Section 1)

February 14, 1859 -- Act of Congress admitting Oregon into the Union is approved and Constitution goes into effect. The statehood act grants the state the 16th and 36th section of every township to support common schools.

1862 -- County School Fund tax is increased to two mills (two tenths of a cent) generating $26,155 in the state’s 20 counties for the 1863-64 school year. The reported school operating cost that year was $45,383, leaving a difference of $20,000 to be made up by local districts.

1873-1899 -- County School Fund tax is increased in 1873 to three mills (three tenths of a cent), in 1882 to four mills, in 1887 to five mills, in 1893 to the same per capita amount as was raised in 1892, and in 1899 to five mills.

1878 -- High schools are authorized for districts with 1,000 students. Women gain the right to vote in school elections.

1882 -- Normal schools open in Monmouth, Ashland and Drain to train teachers.

1901 -- First state standards are imposed requiring districts that received money from the county school fund to file reports with county school superintendents and to operate school for at least three months each year.

Oregon Legislature also requires all districts to provide a high school education, expanding the definition of “common schools” to include education through grade 12 for those districts offering education through grade 12 (unified districts).

1903-1919 -- In 1903 a new County School Fund law is enacted requiring each county court to impose a tax that would amount to at least $6 for each child within the county between the ages 4 and 20. The levy in subsequent years could be no less than the per capita amount levied in the county for the 1903 tax year. The 1907 Legislature increased the amount to $7 per child and specified that at least 85% of the receipts from the county school fund must be devoted to teachers’ salaries. The 1909, 1917 and 1919 Legislatures specified base amounts that each district would receive.

The distribution formula used during these years was designed to encourage districts to urge teachers to attend institutes by providing a bonus of $5 for each teacher who attended a teachers’ institute.

1906 -- Federal government begins paying a portion of national forestland receipts to states for the benefit of public roads and schools in counties in which federal forestlands are located. In 1917 the Oregon Legislature approves legislation allocating 75% of the federal forestland receipts to roads and 25% to schools.

1908-1920 -- In an effort to halt rapidly increasing local property taxes, Legislature enacts and voters approve a Constitutional 6% limitation on the growth of school district tax bases. Under the limitation, a district’s tax base could be increased up to 6% each year without approval of local voters. Any increase over the 6% limitation required voter approval.

1917 -- U.S. Congress enacts Smith-Hughes national Vocational Education Act to promote agricultural education and the advancement of education in the trades, industries and home economics.

1920 -- Voters approve an annual tax of two mills (two tenths of a cent) on all taxable property in the state for the support and maintenance of public elementary schools. The tax is collected and redistributed on a county basis. The state teachers’ association submits the only Voters’ Pamphlet argument for the elementary school fund measure. It includes the following points:

  • “Our schools are facing a great crisis
  • Teachers’ wages have long been far below a scale commensurate with their services.
  • In addition to more money for teachers’ wages, schools must pay more for maintenance, repairs, building, etc.
  • The proposed tax is not necessarily an addition to the present school revenues. It may be used, if desired, in place of some of the district tax, or in place of some of the extra county tax above the minimum requirement.
  • With its apportionment on a teacher basis, it will remove a good deal of the inequality existing in every county.
  • If we continue to lag behind our neighboring states, they will continue to draw upon us for our stronger teachers, and give us those who are not good enough for them.
  • There must be schools and they must be made constantly better to keep pace with the demands of life.”

1920-1940 -- The number of Oregon school districts drops from 2,543 in 1920 to 2,237 in 1930, to 2,015 in 1940 and to 1,180 in 1940. The Rural School Law enacted in 1946 further reduced the number of districts to 594 by 1950.

1921 -- County School Fund law is amended to provide that the amount raised per census child is $10, or not less per child than the amount raised in 1919.

1922 -- Compulsory School Act approved

1924 -- Compulsory School Act held unconstitutional

1927 -- Legislature requires schools to operate for at least 160 days, up from 4 months in 1907, 6 months in 1909; and 8 months in 1919, unless they were required to close for an epidemic of any contagious disease.

1929 -- Legislature passes Property Tax Relief Act. The act imposes a person income tax and dedicates the revenues to offset the State’s Property tax levy. As a result, the state has not levied a property tax since 1940.

1945 -- The Oregon School Boards Association is formed to secure additional state support for education. OSBA, the Oregon Education Association and Oregon Congress of Parents & Teachers helped develop a program for state school support, which is placed on the Nov. 1946 general election ballot by initiative petition. This Basic School Support Fund Measure is designed to provide:

  • A stable source of revenue for public education
  • New and additional money for an adequate financial floor for education throughout the state
  • Adequate equalization of educational opportunities through the state

1946 -- Voters approve the Basic School Support Fund initiative, which replaces the state school support and elementary school funds. Initiative sponsors expect the new law to provide 50% of school operating costs from state resources.

1947 -- Under the new law, total state funds allocated for 1947-48 meet 44.7 percent of school operating costs. The funds are distributed using a formula that includes transportation aid, flat grants and equalization. The 1947 BSSF distribution formula is revised by the 1951 Legislature and again by the 1957 Legislature.

1950 -- Voters approve a Legislature-proposed increase in the basis for determining the amount of Basic School Support from $50 per census child to $80 per census child. The amount appropriated in 1950-51 on the basis of $50 per child is $18,424,750. The amount appropriated for 1951-52 on the basis of $80 per census child is $29,596,560.

1957-1959 -- Legislature increases appropriation to $105 per census child and applies $10 of the increase against local district tax levies and allocates a portion of BSSF to special education programs. The 1959 Legislature eliminates a portion of the tax offset.

1963 -- Legislature changes the basis for appropriating the Basic School Support Fund, repeals the tax offset feature and makes other significant changes in the law, including changing the age span for the school census from 4-20 to 4-16 and requiring the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to estimate, on the first Monday in March, the amount each school district will receive from the BSSF. Payments for special programs are eliminated, added to the ODE budget or provided for with direct appropriations. Under the new formula, the BSSF is used only for direct payments to districts for transportation, growth, flat grants and equalization.

Legislature also enacts Senior Citizens Property Tax Deferral Program. Homeowners age 62 and over can defer property taxes payments until the owner dies or sells the property. The State pays the tax and gets a lien on the property for the tax and an accrued simple interest rate of 6% per year. To qualify, the owner must have a household income under $24,500 in the year prior to applying. Once on the program, a taxpayer may defer only in years when federal adjusted gross income is less than $29,000 in the prior year. In 1977 the Legislature expanded the program to include special assessments.

Beginning in 1985, the Legislature appropriates General Fund money to subsidize the program, if needed. Until 1995, senior deferral tax payments were considered a General Fund investment. Since 1992, the amount of repayment by participants exceeded the total payment to counties.

The 1999 Legislature increased the senior household income limit to $27,500 in the year prior to applying. Once on the program, the household income limit was raised to $32,000. These new income limits are indexed to the U.S. Urban CPI. The 1999 Legislature also opened the deferral program to the disabled community. These program changes began in the 2001-2002 tax year.

1973 -- Governor Tom McCall proposes a way solve both the school funding problem and property tax escalation at once. He convinces legislators to refer a constitutional amendment to increase state school support to 90 percent, freeze property taxes, make property tax relief delivered through state funding of schools permanent and pay for it by increasing the state income tax by 30 percent. He thought his popularity might carry the proposal to victory and made passage of “The McCall Plan” his personal campaign. The plan’s narrow defeat in November that year was devastating to the man who believed its passage would have made “our corner of the world a better place in which to live.”

Legislature also passes Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, which as amended in 1995, provides a process of negotiations, mediation and strike by the union or implementation of the employer’s final offer. Under the act, public employee wages and benefits have increase significantly, generally keeping pace with or ahead of inflation and, during periods of high inflation, adding significantly to school operating costs.

1973 -- Homeowners and Renters Refund Program (HARRP) is created and discontinued by the 1991 Legislature. Refunds are phased down in 1991 and then ended. In 1991 HARRP gave property tax refunds to homeowners and renters with household incomes of less than $10,000. Assets (excludes homestead, personal property and retirement plans) could not exceed $25,000 unless taxpayer is 65 or older. The program refunded property taxes up to a maximum for each income group.

1975 -- U.S. Congress passes Public law 94-142, which requires school districts to identify all handicapped children, enroll them in appropriate programs, and prepare individual education programs for each identified child. The law becomes effective in 1978 and over the years has become a significantly under-funded federal mandate and a primary factor in increasing school operating costs.

Oregon Legislature enacts Elderly Rental Assistance (ERA) for renters ages 58 and older with household incomes of less than $10,000. Assets (excludes homestead, personal property and retirement plans) must be less than $25,00 if under age 65. Rent for calculating a payment is limited to $2,100 and rent must exceed 20% of household income. The payment is gross rent (includes fuel and utilities) up to the $2,100 limit less 20% of household income. The maximum payment is $2,100 at zero income and the minimum is 12% and 10% respectively.

Taxpayers are required to apply for payment. Payments are made by check in October of each year. About 7,000 renters received an average ERA payment of $714 in 1999 for a cost to the state’s General Fund of approximately $5 million.

1979 -- Legislature enacts Property Tax Relief Program (PTR). 1985 Legislature repeals it. The program, as originally enacted, refunded 30% of qualifying operating levies up to a maximum of $800 for each homeowner. Renters were refunded 4.7% of contract rent up to $400 for each renter.

1983-84 -- Oregon responds to the federal “Nation at Risk” report on the condition of public education with the State Board of Education adopting an Action Plan for Excellence.

1987 -- Voters approve a constitutional amendment to allow school districts to levy property taxes for operating purposes up to the amount levied for operations in the prior year without voter approval. This “safety net” legislation aims at stopping school closures caused when voters fail to approve local tax levies. Between 1972-1987, 13 school districts close a total of 187 days for lack of funds, impacting 97,611 students.

During the five school years prior to the passage of the 1990 property tax rate limitation, a total of 98 school districts fall into the “safety net” for one or more years.

1990 -- Voters approve property tax rate limitation. The law limits the combined total schools, education service districts and community colleges can collect from an individual property to $5 per $1,000 of a property’s market value, and the combined total cities, counties and all other special districts can collect to $10 per $1,000 of a property’s market value.

1991-1996 -- The new law triggers a major shift away from local property tax funding to state funding of education. This constitutionally mandated increase in state funding for K-12 education is allocated to local districts through an equalization formula consisting of a general purpose grant plus a transportation grant minus local revenues. In 1990-91, the State Basic School Support Fund appropriation, funded primarily by income taxes, accounted for 28 % of Oregon K-12 operating revenue. By 1995-96, the State School Fund is providing 68 % of K-12 operating revenue.

1991 -- Legislature enacts Oregon’s Educational Act for the 21st Century, calling for major changes in school programs aimed at making Oregon students the best educated by 2000 and a workforce equal to any in the world by 2010. The 1995 Legislature revises the act, changing major goals to: have the best-educated citizens in the world, achieve the highest standards of academic content and performance, and provide lifelong academic skills that prepare students for ever-changing world. Specific dates for achieving these goals are deleted and implementation timelines are extended. Educational Act standards are modified again and implementation timelines further extended by the 1997 and 1999 Legislatures.

1991 Legislature also passes bill requiring all school districts to unify, become K-12 districts, by Sept. 1, 1996. The law applies to all union high school districts and their component elementary districts, unified elementary districts, and school districts with territory in more than one union high school district or with territory only partly within a union high school district.

School consolidations between 1960 and 1991 had reduced the number of districts from 594 in 1960 to 356 in 1970, to 311 in 1980, to 301 in 1990, to 297 in 1991. The goal of the 1991 legislation was to reduce the number of school district to 199 by the 1997-98 school year.

November 1992 -- Voters overwhelmingly defeat a measure referred by the 1991 Legislature to establish a sales tax for schools.

1993 -- Legislature reduces number of education service districts from 29 to 18 and expands their roles. A portion of state lottery dollars is earmarked to fund school improvement and facility construction and maintenance.
Oregon conducts first statewide vote-by mail election in the U.S.

1994 -- U.S. Congress enacts Goals 2000 legislation encouraging states and local school districts to set higher standards, improve educational programs, and reach eight voluntary national goals by the year 2000.

Voters approve initiative requiring all elections in Oregon to be conducted by mail.

February 1995 -- Oregon becomes the nation’s first federal Goals 2000 state and first state to receive flexibility from certain federal education regulations.

May 1995 -- In a special election, voters approve use of lottery proceeds for education in addition to economic development and create an Education Endowment Fund.

1996-97 -- Voters approve a property tax assessment limitation measure, which the Legislature revises to clarify specific wording in the law. The revised constitutional amendment is approved, rolling back property tax assessments to 1995-96 levels and limiting future assessed value growth to 3 percent per year.

The law also includes a double majority requirement for voter approval of any tax measure placed on the ballot in any election other than the November general election in even numbered years. Under this requirement a tax measure is approved only if at least 50 percent of all eligible voters return their ballots and a majority of these voters approve the tax increase.

1997 -- Legislature abolishes “permanent contract status” (tenure) for licensed employees in public schools.

Legislature authorizes creation of Charter Schools. This new type of public school can be created from an existing public school or as a new entity. Conversion of tuition-based private schools to charter schools is prohibited. School board approval in district where charter school is located is required before charter school can be created. Denial of an application can be appealed to the State Board of Education.

1997-2000 -- Oregon House Speaker Lynn Lundquist (R-Powell Butte) forms Legislative Council on the Quality Education Model, aimed at helping determine the appropriate level of funding needed to help students reach state educational standards. The Council’s 1999 report becomes model used by the Quality Education Commission, appointed in 1999 by the governor and state superintendent of public instruction. The resulting report provides a framework for analyzing funding decisions. The prototypes also enable schools to forecast reasonable educational outcomes based on the resources received.

1999 -- Legislation allows school districts and community colleges to seek voter approval for local option levies based on the taxation gap that exists between the constitutional limits of the 1990 property tax rate limitation and the 1996 property tax assessment limitation. Levy may be for one to five years for operating purposes or for one to 10 years for capital projects.

November 2000 -- Voters approve a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to provide adequate and equitable funding for schools (Section 8):

  1. The Legislative Assembly shall appropriate in each biennium a sum of money sufficient to ensure that the state's system of public education meets quality goals established by law, and publish a report that either demonstrates the appropriation is sufficient, or identifies the reasons for the insufficiency, its extent, and its impact on the ability of the state's system of public education to meet those goals.
  2. Consistent with such legal obligation as it may have to maintain substantial equity in state funding, the Legislative Assembly shall establish a system of Equalization Grants to eligible districts for each year in which the voters of such districts approve local option taxes as described in Article XI, section 11 (4)(a)(B) of this Constitution. The amount of such Grants and eligibility criteria shall be determined by the Legislative Assembly.

State funding for schools in 1999-2000 is 70% of operating costs. However, constitutional amendment does not define sufficient and has no teeth for forcing increased spending for schools.

Voters also approve initiative requiring mail ballots for all elections.

January 2002 -- U.S. President George W. Bush signs into law the revised Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), also called the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The law, which represents the most significant change in federal education policy in a generation, requires:

  • Annual testing in reading and math for all students grades 3-8
  • Regular reporting of test results to parents and the public
  • Fully qualified teachers in every classroom
  • Greater choice for students in chronically failing schools

2001-2002 -- State income tax revenues begin precipitous decline as interest rates and the values of state and personal investments drop. Legislature meets in special session five times in 2001 and 2002 as the financial situation worsens. 
Fifth special legislative session held in Sept. 2002 refers 3-year state income tax increase to voters at a special election Jan. 28, 2003. In all, revenues have fallen $1.8 billion (17%) from what lawmakers expected they would be when they approved the 2001-2003 state budget in July 2001. This means, even if voters approve the income tax increase, revenues will fall $126 million short of paying for 2001-2003 approved state programs. The shortfall comes on top of $310 million in budget cuts scheduled to take effect if voters reject the temporary income tax increase.

September 2002 -- Voters approve constitutional amendment turning the Education Endowment Fund into a “rainy day fund” and allowing the Legislature to use approximately $150 million to lessen the impact of state revenue losses on schools.

2002 -- The OSBA, Oregon Education Association and Confederation of Oregon School Administrators commission ECONorthwest to study the impact of K-12 spending on the Oregon economy. The report provides formulas that can be used to show the impact of each district’s spending on its local economy as well as to show the impact statewide.

A second ECONorthwest study (an analysis of K-12 funding), commissioned by OSBA, finds that between 1991 and 2001:

  • Statewide spending per student on special education programs increased about 14.3 percent annually since 1992, while spending on regular classroom instruction increased by 3 percent annually.
  • The state's 12-year-old school funding equalization formula has helped some of the state's school districts but hurt others. Districts that were well funded prior to equalization grew at a much slower pace than districts that were poorly funded.
  • Oregon's national ranking based on per-student expenditures dropped from 15th to 20th.
  • K-12 spending as a share of Oregonians' personal income fell from 4.6 percent to 4.2 percent while total personal income in the state increased annually by 5.7 percent.

Sources: Oregon Blue Book 2000-2001, OSBA’s Covering Education and Legislative Reports, Tom Rigby, former OSBA Executive Director, William G. Robbins, retired OSU History Professor.

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