Come May 17, Portland voters will decide whether to OK a $548 million bond measure for upgrading city schools and where to increase the district’s operating levy from $1.25 to $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed property value).
Naturally, Portland Public Schools is hoping they’ll vote "yes" twice -- and to help make their case, they’ve sent out a comprehensive mailer to some 230,000 residents outlining funding, student performance and a wide range of other facts and figures.
As we thumbed through the report, one graph caught our eye: a yellow bar chart that showed "Per-student school funding in Oregon (State School Fund formula)" for the current and past three school years.
The graph shows the funding down 6.5 percent this year as compared to the 2007-2008 school year. (Here’s how the pamphlet says the dollars break down: $6,036 in 2007-08; $5,989 in 2008-09; $5,834 in 2009-10; and $5,644 in 2010-11.)
That 6.5 percent drop in state funding seemed a little suspicious, especially since we’ve heard for the past couple years that federal stimulus dollars helped keep funding relatively flat.
What we really wanted to know was this: Has state school funding per student really dropped from $6,036 in 2007-08 to $5,644 to 2010-11?
After phone calls to Portland Public Schools, the Oregon Department of Education and the Legislative Fiscal (Revenue) Office -- and winding up with different figures from each -- our collective head was spinning with numbers. So, we threw out the numbers we’d collected and started from scratch. Scratch being the Oregon Department of Education’s website.
The Department of Education makes publica wealth of PDFs that lay out the amount of state funding distributed via the school fund formula -- the pot of money the graph addresses. We collected the most recent calculations for the years in question.
We noticed right away that the numbers in the brochure were probably referring to Portland Public Schools funding and not Oregon funding generally. Spokesman Matt Shelby confirmed this. The graph had been mislabeled.
That’s not ideal, but, while the mistake was sloppy, it wasn’t a definitive answer to our question. We still wondered if that decline had, indeed, occurred. So we adjusted our search and began calculating state funding for Portland Public over the past few years.
We were looking for two numbers: The amount of funding the district received via the state school fund formula and number of students in the district.
Both numbers can be a little elusive. On the first figure, the funding numbers the Oregon Department of Education keeps do not include the stimulus funding. On the second, there are actually two ways to count students.
There’s the resident number -- the number of actual students being instructed -- and the weighted number -- students with certain needs count as more than one student because their education tends to cost more. There’s a pretty big gulf between the two figures.
Take the current school year, for instance. Portland Public Schools is home to about 43,300 students; that’s "students" in the literal, you-could-do-a-head-count sense. Under the weighted number, it’s home to nearly 53,000.
We asked Shelby which combination of the figures his district has used in creating the chart. Shelby said the district went with the weighted figure for student population and the state funds minus the stimulus dollars.
When we used the same figures, we got slightly different numbers than what Portland Public had published. Try as we might, we could not find the discrepancy. That said, the overall decrease since 2007-08 was about 5 percent. No, that’s not the 6.5 percent from the brochure, but it’s pretty close.
Next, we checked to see if anything much changed if we calculated per-student spending based on the actual number of physical students. When readers of the brochure saw the term "per student," that’s probably more along the lines of what they thought the district meant -- not an internal weighting system that suggests the district has 10,000 more students than it really does.
That gave us a considerably higher per-student spending figure: $7,699 in 2007-08; $7,415 in 2008-09; $7,440 in 2009-10; and $7,234 in 2010-11. In no year did the district get less than $6,000 per student, as the brochure suggests is now the case.
Still, if you do the math, you’ll notice the figure has dropped about 6 percent -- closer to the amount presented in the graph.
Then, we added back in the stimulus dollars. That made a world of difference. With the stimulus, state funding actually dropped only 2 percent since 2007-08, from roughly $7,700 to $7,560 per "resident" student.
Shelby pushed back on the calculation. "We're not going to give credit to the state for federal stimulus dollars," he said. The graph is "an effort to show our community that state support as gone down over the past few years."
He has a point -- state funding, in the strict sense, has gone down. That said, the federal government came in to help backfill a hole that represented a decline in the economy -- not a conscious decision to roll back investment in public education. Had the feds not offered a bailout to Oregon schools, the Legislature would have likely made up at least part of that difference with cuts elsewhere so that schools didn't take that large a hit.
Before we made our ruling, we had one lingering thought: What does the overall Portland Public Schools budget look like? Well, according to their website, their total funds budget is actually up: $636 million this year compared to $617 million in 2007-08. That said the budget this year is lower than last year’s $664 million pot. Meanwhile, the cost of education -- everything from supplies to teacher benefits -- keeps climbing year after year.
Now, back to the case at hand. Has per-student spending in Portland really dropped from roughly $6,036 in the 2007-2008 school year to $5,644 in the 2010-2011 school year? Sort of.
Clearly per-student funding has gone down, while inflation has been going up. Still, it’d probably be most accurate to say it’s dropped from approximately $7,700 to $7,230 -- if we’re talking strictly state dollars. And it’d be even more honest to point out that the state got an assist during bad times in the form of the stimulus, especially given those federal dollars were disbursed via the state school fund formula, which is what the graph claims to show.
All things considered, this seems like a statement that is partially accurate but in need of some context. We’ll rate it Half True.