Political guarantee? Oregon GOP walkout on ‘culture wars’ bill threatens billions in school funds

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Funding for schools, literacy programs and special education teachers in Oregon — a state where 60% of third-grade students cannot read at the grade level — could be compromised by a Republican walkout that stalled hundreds of bills and derailed the Legislature for nearly six weeks.

Deadlock on a bill that would expand access to abortion and gender-affirming health care could scuttle much-needed funding for education in a year when the stars seemed to align on the budget of the Oregon.

Tax revenue beat state economists’ projections, allowing lawmakers to approve a record K-12 budget of $10.2 billion. But the education spending legislation requires a vote from the Senate, which has been unable to proceed since May 3 due to the GOP boycott, and time is running out, with only two weeks to go until the end of the session. legislative.

“Supporting strong schools and improving student achievement should be enough to get anyone to show up for work,” said Democratic State Rep. Courtney Neron, chair of the House Education Committee, during a recent rally against the walkout. “From early childhood to higher education, our schools and our students need us to meet serious challenges.”

The Oregon Senate Republican office said in an email that “it is extremely important that we ensure education is fully funded.” and budgets.

But Democrats say it’s not possible to wait until the last day of the session to pass the budgets and that school districts need an idea of ​​potential funding by early July to start planning for the next one. school year.

“There’s no way we can pass all of the budget bills on June 25,” Democratic Senator Michael Dembrow, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said in an email. “Simply drafting budget bills in both chambers will take several days.”

If lawmakers don’t return soon, Dembrow said he suspects Governor Tina Kotek “will have to call a special session at some point to set the budgets.”

As in other states across the country, reading and math scores have plummeted in Oregon as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures are hitting young children particularly hard, depriving them of essential in-person instruction needed to learn to read. About 60% of third-graders in Oregon are not fluent in reading or math, according to the state’s latest assessment results.

In addition to the $10.2 billion K-12 budget, which passed the state House with bipartisan support, the Senate Republican walkout could also derail bills on the education to shore up pandemic learning losses and address the education workforce crisis.

One of these bills aims to address shortages of teachers and other school personnel, especially in rural areas, and to increase the salaries of special education teachers. Another would invest $140 million in a new early literacy initiative for children from birth to grade three. The initiative is a centerpiece of Kotek’s program.

“This should be an emergency, a wake-up call,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group The Education Trust. “It’s unfortunate that these really important bills that could really reshape the way reading is taught and could really transform students’ learning experiences are…now being hijacked by an entirely separate issue.”

The Early Literacy Bill, in particular, received over 150 written public comments. Among other things, the measure would fund tutoring for struggling readers and direct schools to base literacy instruction on the science of reading research, which emphasizes the importance of phonics in teaching children to read. .

Anna Ingram in Eugene was among the parents who testified in support of the bill. She described feeling angry, anxious and desperate when she saw her son struggling to learn to read. His first grade teacher provided a list of 200 common words he should memorize. In third grade, he was encouraged to guess words from their first letter and by looking at pictures, she said.

“In fact, probing the letters of the word was not recommended,” she said in written testimony. “He learned to read because I pay thousands of dollars a year to give him explicit and systematic instructions.”

Education spending in the coming years will be especially critical as one-time federal pandemic funds expire, said Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

“We probably need thoughtful, intelligent and careful policy-making in education more than we have in generations. It was a bigger success for American schools than anything known in recent memory,” he said of the pandemic.

“When the resources are potentially there, I think it’s extremely important that we use them and use them well,” added Valant. “Because the resources are not there forever.”


Claire Rush is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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