2013 Legislative Wrap Up: Children Are The Future?

This is part of our 2013 Legislative Wrap series, where we’re giving the rundown on what the Oregonian Legislature accomplished across a range of issues and “grading” them on their work. For more in this series, hit the jump.
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Overcrowded Classrooms“This session showed that there’s finally bi-partisan agreement on the fact that we have to do much, much more for our kids. We’re thankful to the legislature for raising the K-12 budget to a more stable level, but we have a long way to go before we’re really offering our kids the world-class education they deserve.” — Otto Schell, Oregon PTA

The legislative session’s mixed success is perhaps most clearly seen in the budget for K-12 schools.

On one hand, the legislature’s K-12 budget includes direct funding of $6.55 billion—considerably higher than the past few years of deeply bleak budget cuts. It’s a major step forward for Oregon’s kids, but a full-throated celebration of this number ignores the full extent of budget cuts that have happened across the state since 2007.

For most districts, the $6.55 billion (plus an additional $200 million in cuts to retirees’ pensions) will provide a “stability budget”—meaning that they can basically hold the line at current levels. No more teacher layoffs and lost days, but not much in the way of big new investments either. For many districts, however, even this funding level will still mean two more years of budget cuts. The Eugene School District, for instance, will lose 30 teaching positions and five days off the school year.

In other words, the legislative budget is a step in the right direction, but still far from the big, bold reinvestment in the future that our kids deserve. Once the dust settles, we may not still have the third largest class sizes in the country, but we won’t have moved up very many notches.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the debate over the K-12 budget is the acrobatic twists that Republican legislators attempted in order to appear to be the champions for public school funding. In previous years, they’ve largely been dismissive of—or downright hostile to—the idea of sending more money to Oregon schools. But this year, they pounded their fists on the table, demanding more money for K-12 classrooms, even voting against the budget because it was too small. What changed? They discovered that they could use the K-12 budget to beat up on low-income retired public employees. Despite their moralistic speeches about funding classrooms, it appears they were actually more interested in taking money away from retirees. (Especially since they couldn’t be bothered to cut tax loopholes for large corporations in order to put more money into schools.)

In good news, the legislature passed a bill (House Bill 2644) that requires school districts to keep and compile statistics on class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios. The new policy will give our communities a better view on the struggles facing our underfunded classrooms.

In optimistic terms, one could see this session as the first step toward a more universal, bipartisan agreement that we’ve got to do much, much more for our K-12 students. Less optimistically, this session appears to have proved that legislative Republicans will do just about anything to block any real chance at funding our classrooms, like cutting tax breaks for large, profitable corporations and the wealthy.

Grade: Roomba Kittens

K-12 Funding

For more 2013 Legislative Wraps, check out:

The Dirt on Oregon’s Environment
Higher Education: A Step in the Right Direction
Cutting Tax Loopholes
Economic Fairness
Senior Services and Health Care
Other Important Bills

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