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Historic Virtual Legislative Session Presents Multitude Of Challenges

By Laurie Wimmer | OEA Government Relations Consultant

$9.1 billion

The amount proposed for the State School Fund budget. In reality, $9.6 billion is the amount needed to fund Oregon's 197 school districts and 19 educational service districts.

One of the most noteworthy impacts in this historic year of coping with COVID-19 in Oregon has been the absence of armies of public policy advocates, legislative staffers, and other employees in Oregon’s iconic art deco state capitol. The 81st Legislative Assembly, now at the halfway mark, has been conducted entirely online, with the presence of legislators and a skeleton staff only, safely distanced, allowed in the building. Even so, two cases of infection have stalled work in the House.

All committee hearings, work sessions, and floor sessions are accessed through Teams or on the Oregon Legislative Information System (OLIS) platforms, and all communication outside of committee and floor sessions are accomplished through Zoom, Teams, phone calls, or emails. The tradition of pulling legislators off the chamber floor to count votes or pitch an idea, as well as quick hallway conversations for the same purposes, have evaporated from the public-contact playbook.

Despite this, OEA’s lobby team has worked diligently and creatively to ensure that education policy and budgets reflect the values of our 41,000 members. Key to our work has been an emphasis on meaningful equity-related policy. Advancing our members’ agenda has been challenged by the sheer volume of work, as the 60-member House of Representatives and 30-member Senate consider 2,465 bills and resolutions in a five-month session dominated by four topics: COVID-19, wildfires, racial equity, and economic recovery.

Some highlights of OEA member priorities include the following:

$673 million

The amount proposed for the Support Fund for Oregon's community colleges. A true current-service level funding request, continuing programs into the next biennium without cuts, is $703 million.

K-12 and Community College Funding

In mid-March, the budget-writing co-chairs of Ways and Means released their “framework” budget for the coming two-year biennium. Characterized as a starting point, this budget fails to fund either K-12 or community colleges adequately.

The K-12 “State School Fund” is the flexible, locally allocated operations budget that forms most of the resources school districts use to run schools. To do that without cuts in the next two school years, $9.6 billion is the budget that Oregon’s 197 school districts and 19 education service districts (ESDs) need. Instead, the co-chairs proposed a $9.1 billion State School Fund budget, though it held harmless two grant programs — the Student Investment Account in the Student Success Act and the High School Success Act (Measure 98) — which are earmarked grant funds, not operational resources. The $500 million difference between what is proposed and what our students need is equivalent to losing half of K-12’s share of the newly created Student Success Act.

Community colleges were also disappointed by the co-chairs’ framework. A true current-service level funding request, continuing programs into the next biennium without cuts, is $703 million in the Support Fund. The co-chairs have proposed just $673 million, which fails to compensate for revenues lost to pandemic-related attrition.

Class Size and Caseloads as a Mandatory Subject of Bargaining

Making its fourth appearance before the Legislature is a top-priority OEA bill to ensure that our members have the right to discuss class size and caseloads at the bargaining table as a part of our advocacy for members and their students. A bipartisan effort to move SB 580 across the finish line has added momentum this year.

Part-time Faculty Health Care

Also facing tough sledding — a theme for OEA this session — is another bill we’ve requested several times. Part-time faculty who work full-time at several institutions but who still do not have access to health insurance would be covered by SB 551. Ironically, the fate of this bill may be in the hands of a physician legislator, who has not agreed to support this essential protection for higher education contingent faculty. Member advocacy and action opportunities will emerge in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

Limiting For-Profit Virtual School Enrollments

Five bill and two amendments to legislation seek to lift the cap on transfers to for-profit online schools. Currently, more than 20,000 students have enrolled in virtual schools statewide. These programs have poor records when it comes to educational quality, diversity, and transparency. For every half-percent that the cap is lifted, school districts lose $59 million. OEA has worked since June of 2020 to stymie efforts to expand enrollments at these outfits, run as charter schools by out-of-state corporations.

Gun Violence Prevention Bills

OEA has fought for more than 20 years to make our schools and communities safer from gun violence. As a part of a coalition of advocates for sensible firearm laws, we have championed three bills this session:

  • SB 554, which would enable school districts and other public places to ban concealed weapons on their properties;
  • HB 2510, which would establish a secure-storage requirement for all firearms; and
  • HB 2543, which closes what is known as the “Charleston Loophole”. In Oregon, though a background check is required before a firearm may be transferred to a buyer, that requirement expires if it cannot be accomplished in three days, allowing the purchaser to take possession of a weapon without the completed check. This loophole was named for the Charleston, South Carolina tragedy in which nine people were murdered by a young man who obtained his gun this way. All three bills are still alive and in process.

Improved Standardized Testing Climate

OEA has championed a suite of bills on testing, relating to waivers, audits, meaningful accountability indicators, improving parental opt-out rights, and ending the essential skills exam. Members have articulately weighed in on these proposals, helping legislators to see that evaluation of students, schools, and the education system itself is best achieved through qualitative measures, and not high-stakes tests emanating from a bygone era’s corporate reforms. HB 3338 and SB 602 are just two examples of OEA legislation to address these topics.

Various Equity Initiatives

As founding members of the Fair Shot Coalition, which has brought innovations to several recent sessions, OEA is centering equity policy in its legislative portfolio. Racial justice is at the core of this agenda. HB 3230 would provide legal counsel to immigrants facing court proceedings and would create a system managed by and for immigrants. HB 3265 would strengthen our sanctuary laws to keep the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from communicating with law enforcement and make courthouses safe spaces for immigrants facing civil court. HB 2002 is a public safety reform bill that includes funding to train law enforcement agencies in restorative justice. Proposals at the intersection of economic and racial justice that are moving through the legislature with bipartisan support are Child Care for All (HB 3073) and a bill to help low-income Oregonians with healthy-home rehabilitation (HB 2842).

Another concept concerns the way education resources are distributed in the K-12 State School Fund. The distribution method in use since 1991, which considers uncontrollable district cost factors in a mathematical equalization formula, has underestimated the educational costs of students navigating poverty. OEA has proposed in HB 2501 to double the formula factor to better support our low-income students. That bill, along with other proposals to change the formula, is currently lodged in a work group that is considering whether to amend OEA’s bill or refer it back to committee for passage.

Finally, OEA has brought forward HB 3354, a bill designed to create an alternative to the Pearson-owned EdTPA (Education Teacher Performance Assessment) licensure exam for aspiring educators. Understood to exhibit bias against non-native English speakers or aspiring educators from outside the dominant culture, this test presents a barrier to entry, especially when its high costs are also factored in. To diversify its teaching profession, Oregon’s educator preparation programs will, with this bill, be able to offer alternative pathways for demonstrating proficiency.

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