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Lawmakers, advocates demand full funding

SALEM — As the Oregon Legislature considers sweeping cutbacks and tax hikes to close a $1.6 billion budget deficit, an education ballot initiative that voters overwhelmingly approved in November may be on the chopping block before it goes into effect.

A group of education advocates and bipartisan lawmakers are now demanding the Legislature carry out the will of Oregon voters and fully fund the $300 million per-biennium cost as required by Measure 98.

The measure— designed to boost Oregon's low graduation rates by requiring statewide career-technical education, college credit courses and other dropout-prevention programs at a cost of $800 per high school student - won more than 65 percent of the vote last fall. But because the measure amends state law, rather than the Oregon Constitution, it can be changed by the Legislature.

Aside from Gov. Kate Brown, who supported Measure 98 during campaign season, suggesting in her budget proposal to cut the measure's funding in half, current talks of any potential changes are speculative with the end of the legislative session still four months out.

But some state lawmakers and officials at Stand for Children, the Portland-based national education nonprofit behind Measure 98, say the matter is urgent as school districts, like the Legislature, are drafting their budgets for the upcoming 2017-19 cycle beginning July 1.

"The voters of Oregon were clear ... what I'm frustrated by is that there are efforts in this building to attempt to water down Measure 98 to make it do something that the voters did not vote for and perhaps even delay its implementation," Rep. Mark Johnson, a Republican from Hood River, said Monday during a press conference. "I'm not supporting any of those efforts."

The measure's $800 per-student funding requirement would pull from uncommitted money in the state's general fund, the Legislature's most discretionary spending dollars. That spending mandate is triggered only when a $1.5 billion-jump in revenue exists from the previous budget cycle. In that instance, money would be diverted into a special fund managed by the state Education Department and distributed accordingly to school districts, which would also be monitored and held accountable for how the money is spent.

By offering alternative learning programs, Measure 98 is touted as a way to keep high school students in the classroom who've otherwise decided the traditional college route isn't for them. It drew accolades from groups and leaders across the spectrum during the election, with the exception of public teachers and superintendents' unions and groups.

Leaders in the private sector say it also helps boost its pool of skilled workers and therefore strengthens the Oregon job market.

"It's a tough one, right? Voters said they wanted it and I'm not sure what we do," said House Speaker Tina Kotek. "But I don't believe the school districts will be ready actually to start spending the money this fall anyway."