Educators in forest, rural communities urge lawmakers to help students

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by Brian Washington

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Oregon educator John Larson teaches high school language arts in Hermiston, a small city of about 16,000 residents 200 miles east of Portland.

To hear Larson describe the state’s unique ecosystem, Hermiston sits in the middle of a desert—yes, there is desert in Oregon—and is flanked by forest lands.

“So I live right on the fringe of the forest,” said Larson. “If you go 30 miles east you’re back in the forest, and if you go 70 miles west you’re in the forest again. We’re in this empty spot, an agricultural community, in the middle.”

At the height of the timber industry, Oregon’s 30 million acres of forest land—about 48 percent of the state’s total landmass—provided a secure, healthy source of revenue through federal timber sales. This money was also used to fund the state’s public schools. But that was before the industry went belly-up in the late 1990s, and the federal government began implementing restrictions on logging.

So the communities that were reliant on logging began to die and the schools in those areas were severely underfunded.

As a result, forest communities in Oregon, and across the nation in states like Alaska, New Mexico, Kentucky, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington, had to layoff teachers and other education personnel, jam students into larger classes, cut extracurricular activities, and postpone badly-needed building repairs.

Recognizing the education funding crisis, in 2000, the federal government stepped in with the Secure Rural Schools Act to offset the timber losses and ensure that funding was available to give students the educational services they deserve. Since the legislation was implemented, rural counties in Oregon have reportedly received more than $2.8 billion.

Unfortunately, the legislation included an expiration date and has had to be renewed on a short-term basis several times since 2006.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate are expected to take action this week on a two-year extension of the funding. A similar measure has already been approved in the House.

“We really need the funding,” said Larson, who maintains that even with the money from the Secure Rural Schools Act, public schools in the state are still significantly underfunded. “It’s certainly not the answer to sustainable funding in Oregon but it helps mitigate the difficulties that we are having with funding in the state.”

And in reality, all of our schools receive money from it because the money goes into the state school fund and it is apportioned based on population so it benefits all of our students in the state.

Larson says he appreciates the hard work of Oregon’s federal delegation on Capitol Hill who he says is working hard to make the two-year extension a reality. But if he had a chance to talk to them today—he would tell them that the Secure Rural Schools Act needs to be made into a permanent fix.

“The schools are in desperate need of funding and we need to find a way to fund them,” said Larson. “If not through this, the federal government simply has to look at better ways to fund education. It needs to fund it at a level where we can move students forward and really allow them to be the successes that we know they can be.”

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