SALEM — A proposal by the state's teachers union to fundamentally alter a voter-approved mandate for college-prep, vocational and dropout prevention funding in Oregon high schools effectively failed this week in Salem — at least for now.
Debates are heating up over Oregon's looming $1.6 billion-budget deficit as the second half of the 2017 session begins, and the $300 million high school spending requirement set forth in Measure 98 is among the many areas still on the table for cuts.
The Oregon Education Association's revised version of Senate Bill 353 would have stripped Measure 98's funding carve-out and essentially turned it into an optional grant fund. That proposal stood in contrast to House Bill 2246, which was revised to make modest adjustments so that school districts would have more flexibility with spending.
The House revisions were proposed by the four bipartisan lawmakers who sat on a work group with the teachers' union, state education officials and Stand For Children, the nonprofit behind Measure 98. The work group, organized by House Speaker Tina Kotek, hit a roadblock during final negotiations this month so the lawmakers separately drafted the bill revisions, which they filed Monday just hours ahead of the House Education Committee's unanimous approval later that afternoon.
That outcome ultimately helped stall the teachers union's opposing efforts in the Senate with SB 353, which didn't have enough support to clear the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, the first major bill deadline in Salem this year.
But the Senate measure's failure, committee members say, does not mean it's off the discussion table.
"I truly believe that until we get a revenue package and some funding, we shouldn't fund any of 98," said Democratic Sen. Arnie Roblan, who chairs his chamber's education committee. "You don't add new programs when you're cutting old programs."
Gov. Kate Brown's budget proposal in December proposed slashing the measure's funds in half, while the co-chairs of Ways and Means — a large committee that crafts the state's budget — are proposing a one-third reduction as part of its 2017-19 budget.
HB 2246, the proposal to keep the measure mostly intact, is now in the hands of Ways and Means. That budget-crunching committee will also spend the last half of the session mauling over other bills that'd pull "unspecified" amounts of Measure 98 dollars for things unrelated to high school, such as hiring more social workers in elementary schools.
"The voters indeed have spoken on this issue. But they spoke without writing a check," Democratic Sen. Mark Hass, who also sits on the education committee, told AP. "And so you have a split Legislature, one saying 'we're going to kind of dismantle this because we don't have the money'; others say 'no, we have to do what the voters said.' It's a discussion for a political science class."
Disagreements over Measure 98 — approved by voters 2 to 1 in November as a way to pull statewide graduation rates from the nation's bottom ranks — aren't just about money, either. It's a political clash between the teachers union, which sees the measure as a threat to schools' autonomy, and the corporate-backed nonprofit group behind the measure, Stand For Children, which says monitoring for how the money is spent is necessary for measuring whether graduation rates are improving.