Though Oregon’s economy is looking up, a recent boycott of education budget sessions by Republican lawmakers signals that this year could provide another bare-knuckled debate over K-12 funding.
Two years ago, Oregon drew unwanted national attention when, after several rounds of acrimonious debate over school aid, many school districts cut school days, reduced academic programs, and laid off employees because of deep state aid cuts.
Now, several weeks into the current budget-writing season, Democrats and Republicans in the legislature and the Democratic governor can’t seem to agree on how much to spend on schools in the 2005-07 biennium, which begins July 1.
Some House Republicans want to provide $5.2 billion in state school aid. House Democrats are calling for $5.4 billion.
Senate Democrats came up with a figure of $5.3 billion. And Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski upped his original bid of $5 billion for schools to $5.3 billion.
The legislature has established a total state revenue pot of $12.4 billion, which is composed of general-fund and lottery revenue, for the 2005-07 biennium. And while the negotiators’ budget numbers are close—some within $50 million of each other— that doesn’t mean they can close the deal.
Referring to a budget “bidding war,” lobbyist Chuck Bennett said, “Our education [funding] in Oregon could happen on eBay.”
Mr. Bennett, who is the governmental-relations director for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, or COSA, which represents more than 2,000 educators, added: “Our politics right now has become so elementary. But it’s not a simple problem with a simple solution.”
The school funding debate reached a boil on March 31. That’s when House Democrats, in an obscure parliamentary maneuver, tried to force a $5.4 billion school aid bill out of committee and to a floor vote. The motion failed along party lines.
House Minority Leader Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said he and other lawmakers wanted to press the House to debate school funding. He called the $5.4 billion proposal a “no cuts” plan, saying that schools may have to ax programs or increase class sizes if they receive less state aid.
“We couldn’t debate the substance of the bill unless the motion passed. Everyone says schools are a top priority,” Rep. Merkley said. “But House Republicans are fighting to minimize the amount of money going to schools.”
After the motion failed, he and other Democratic leaders in the House sent their GOP counterparts a letter accusing them of stifling debate. House Majority Leader Wayne Scott fired back a letter accusing Democrats of political grandstanding.
While education is important, other public services, such as corrections, transportation and human services, have to be funded as well, Rep. Scott pointed out.
“We can’t throw our [senior citizens] out on the street to allow students to have a better plan. We have tons of programs to honor … and there’s a finite amount of dollars,” he said.
Then, on April 6, Republicans boycotted all ways-and-means subcommittee meetings, declaring that they wouldn’t return unless they and Democrats could strike an agreement on school funding. The boycott ended after both parties agreed to host a series of budget forums around the state in the coming weeks.
While lawmakers feuded, Speaker of the House Karen Minnis, a Republican, floated a long-term school funding proposal. Called the “Stable Schools Plan,” it would give half of all personal income-tax revenue to schools. Oregon reaped $8.9 billion in such revenue in the 2003-05 biennium. That revenue is projected to increase by as much as 12 percent in the 2005-07 budget cycle.
Under Ms. Minnis’ plan, if that revenue grows by more than 8 percent, half the additional money would go to a new grant program to help schools meet requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as well as to awards for schools that want to start innovative programs.
The other half of the additional revenue would go into a rainy-day fund for schools.
The plan, if passed, would go into effect in the 2007-09 biennium, said Speaker Minnis. “It’s high time that we definitely fund our kids first,” she said.
But Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, a Democrat, worries that the proposal might not allocate enough money to schools.
Education groups such as the Oregon School Boards Association and COSA, however, have backed the idea. While the plan may be far from perfect, “it’s worthy of future discussion,” said John Marshall, the legislative services director for the school boards’ group.
“We’ve been on the K-12 roller coaster for the past four years,” he said. “Let’s create long-term stability in schools. [Ms. Minnis] is the only one in the legislature to talk about this seriously.”