SALEM — Last November, Oregonians agreed the state's low high school graduation rates were unacceptable and possible solutions being offered by a measure that required money be set aside, in part, for vocational training were worth a try.
By their 2 to 1 approval of Measure 98, voters said that whenever good times in the economy generate an extra $1.5 billion-plus in biannual tax revenue, lawmakers must preserve a $300 million-chunk — less than 5 percent of the state's K-12 education budget — for mandated spending on career-technical education, dropout prevention and college-credit opportunities. School districts must also be monitored and audited for compliance.
Yet, five months later, the fate of Measure 98 remains in limbo at the Oregon Legislature, where a Tuesday deadline will determine which bills fail or advance for the year.
Facing a $1.6 billion hole in Oregon's upcoming budget and influence by the state's public teachers union in Salem, lawmakers are moving several proposals to dilute or fundamentally alter Measure 98 as voters intended.
So far, the House and Senate education committees have recently advanced bills that'd pull "unspecified" amounts of Measure 98 dollars for other uses, such as hiring social workers in elementary schools and setting up student grants with the Oregon Future Farmers of America Association.
Because Measure 98 changed state law, rather than the state Constitution, lawmakers can alter it however they see fit.
"We need to see this get to classrooms before there are a ton of changes to it," said Toya Fick, executive director of Stand For Children Oregon, the local chapter of the Portland-based nonprofit behind Measure 98. "It's unacceptable to dismantle and cut the measure before it even has a chance to reach our classrooms and benefit our students."
The only major effort to keep the measure mostly intact has been through a loosely-organized "work group" under the Oregon House that drafted a proposal to give schools more spending flexibility as requested by teachers and school districts. The work group's four bipartisan lawmakers then crafted an amendment to House Bill 2246, which was unanimously approved Monday by the House Education Committee.
Before casting their vote, the committee asked the work group's lawmakers during testimony whether they felt the proposed revisions still keep in line with the will of the voters.
"I think it stayed amazingly on course," Republican Rep. Carl Wilson responded.
The state's teachers union, the Oregon Education Association, also participated in the work group but ultimately opposed the HB 2246 amendment. In written testimony, OEA lobbyist Laurie Wimmer said Measure 98 was not created by education experts and called it an "expensive and inefficient bureaucracy masquerading as 'accountability.'"
Instead, Wimmer said OEA has submitted a better proposal in the Senate through an amendment to Senate Bill 353, another placeholder bill, which is up for vote Tuesday by that chamber's Education Committee. OEA's proposed revisions would gut Measure 98's funding requirement and strip its mandates, essentially making it an optional grant fund.
Stand For Children has drawn ire from the OEA for its backing from the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the Walton family behind Walmart. Measure 98 had broad endorsements and zero opposition; educator groups like OEA, which backed the now-failed Measure 97 corporate tax hike, declined to endorse it.
The defeat of the unions' business tax made fears of a $1.6 billion-shortfall a reality for Oregon's 2017-19 budget, which is largely the result of soaring retirement and health care costs of public employees and retirees who make up the unions' memberships.
It's still unclear where budget talks are headed in Salem. Gov. Kate Brown has proposed a $8.1 billion K-12 education budget, less than what school districts say they need, and cutting Measure 98's funding carve-out in half.
HB 2246's passage Monday could set the tone for Tuesday's decision on the SB 353 revisions, Democratic Sen. Arnie Roblan, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told AP.
"We're in a situation where we're about to cut $500,000 from education budget," Roblan said. "I'm not saying this is the best bill we've ever written. But it's better than not having anything, which I was concerned about."