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National Study Finds Oregon A Big Spender On Teacher Benefits

<p>Portland Public Schools toured the Woodlawn School in spring 2018, and put it on a short list of possible sites to house part of the ACCESS Academy.</p>

Rob Manning


Portland Public Schools toured the Woodlawn School in spring 2018, and put it on a short list of possible sites to house part of the ACCESS Academy.

Benefits for current and retired teachers get a bigger share of education spending in Oregon than they do almost anywhere else, according to a new analysis by Bellwether Education, a national think tank.

The Bellwether study found Oregon’s spending on health insurance and pensions for teachers has risen much more quickly than the national average. In 2005, employee benefits accounted for 19.2 percent of education spending in Oregon. But by 2014, the costs of benefits such as health insurance and teacher pensions were consuming 26.3 percent of spending on schools.

In 2014, only Alaska spent a higher percentage than Oregon on teacher benefits, at 30.3 percent.

States as a whole have seen costs eat up an increasing share of school spending — but it’s happening at a faster pace in Oregon than in other states, the study found. In 2005, the national average for benefit spending was 16.2 percent, rising to 19.5 percent in 2014.

The Oregon School Boards Association drew attention to the study earlier this week, by emailing out a link to an Education Week article on it.

OSBA executive director Jim Green said the study can help explain the effect of rising costs, including the Public Employee Retirement System, to voters and lawmakers.

“It at least allows us to say ‘part of that funding that you gave us is going to pay for a benefit that isn’t tied to anybody currently working for the school district,’” Green said. “I think it’s a beneficial analysis for that.”

But the statewide teachers union, the Oregon Education Association, found the study problematic.

OEA president John Larson said the study hasn’t been peer-reviewed and represents a viewpoint that doesn’t support public schools.

“Corporate interests and wealthy individuals continue to attack educators and other hard-working public servants by providing inaccurate or incomplete information about their benefits,” Larson said in a statement to OPB. “The Bellwether report is no different.”

Larson instead pointed to research from AARP showing a wage gap between teachers and professional jobs in the private sector. 

“We should be focused on funding our schools properly, not on trying to continually chip away at the salary and benefits of educators, many of whom are barely paying the bills as it is,” Larson said.  

Authors of the Bellwether study acknowledge that part of the math that makes Oregon spending on teacher benefits appear so high is related to Oregon’s relative low spending on teacher pay and other instructional costs.

The study used inflation-adjusted federal numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics to show that many Oregon school districts saw declines in funding as spending on teacher benefits went up.

But at least one large Oregon district questioned the figures, saying they didn’t match budget numbers at the district. The Bellwether spreadsheet calculated Beaverton had a 33.6 percent drop in “total K-12 spending” from 2005 to 2014. But Beaverton officials had different figures.

“When you take into account inflation, remove the 4,000 student enrollment growth over that time period and remove local option levy funding from the mix, we are about flat in overall spending,” said Kara Yunck, spokeswoman for the Beaverton School District, in a statement to OPB. 

The study found overall K-12 spending in Portland Public Schools went up by 6.1 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2005 to 2014, while benefit spending increased at almost three times that rate, or 17.5 percent. 

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning has been both a reporter and an on-air host at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before that, he filled both roles with local community station KBOO and nationally with Free Speech Radio News. He's also published freelance print stories with Portland's alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week and Planning Magazine. In 2007, Rob received two awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and he was part of the award-winning team responsible for OPB's "Hunger Series." His current beats range from education to the environment, sports to land-use planning, politics to housing.