In one of the best moments of our regional angel investment event last month, keynote speaker Diane Fraiman was asked to name the biggest obstacle to entrepreneurship in Oregon. Her answer (the first emphatically-delivered word of her answer):
It’s been more than a month since and I didn’t take notes so the rest of this post is my opinion, not Diane’s. It wouldn’t be fair to pretend to be quoting. Diane is a partner at Voyager Capital in Portland. She has a great track record and the respect of every entrepreneur I know who knows her, or of her. And this is a sensitive subject because of politics, unions, and public priorities. So don’t blame her for anything except the first word of her eloquent answer.
PERS is the public employee retirement system. I relate it to public schools, teachers’ unions, political power brokering, and, to my mind at least, chronic budget problems for public schools. Budget problems that are rooted in the so-called tax revolt of 20 years ago, politics of voting blocks, campaign financing, and talking points. For a couple generations, people on both sides of the public employee and teachers’ unions negotiations made compromises that postponed problems for the future. And the future they avoided, back then, has arrived.
PERS relates to entrepreneurship in a community because it connects to the problem of declining quality of public education. When the quality of education suffers, entrepreneurs go elsewhere. And the entrepreneurs who might move in choose other places where their children and their future employees have better education in public schools.
It’s not a simple issue. In our community, teachers are getting laid off and schools closing, and the average number of kids per classroom is way up. But some say the teachers who aren’t getting laid off get better than market compensation. Others say the administrative costs have skyrocketed. Some people believe that restricting funding forces institutions to be more efficient. And I know employers who tried and failed to hire administrators from the local school district because they — the would-be administrators — were getting about 1.5 times market compensation. There’s no room here for knee-jerk reactions.
I don’t claim to know much about this topic and I don’t want to engage in a political debate. But I do think people who let public education slide should be aware that declining quality of schools affects the entire community, not just kids and parents. It hurts job creation, startups, economic growth, housing values, crime, and all those other hard-to-quantify facts that make one town in the U.S. a better place to live than another.
I wish more people would realize the far-reaching impact of communities failing to maintain the quality of public education. And I’m glad Diane Fraiman added that into a conversation around communities, startups, and angel investment.
(Image: courtesy of Voyager Capital)