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Democratic lawmakers agree on historic school funding but bill stalled by Oregon Senate Republican walkout

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School funding, educator pay increases and early reading investments are on pause with Senate Republicans in week three of their walkout.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature have agreed to spend a record amount on schools over the next two years after last week’s economic forecast showed lawmakers will have more money to spend.

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, announced late Monday a $10.2 billion investment in the State School Fund, the primary funding source for Oregon’s 197 school districts and 19 regional education service districts.

That’s $700 million more than schools currently have: The last two-year budget allocated $9.3 billion to education. It’s also more than the $9.9 billion Democratic budget writers and Gov. Tina Kotek proposed in early drafts of their budgets, a sum education advocates said wouldn’t be enough to cover current expenses.

“We’re obviously happy with the idea that legislative leaders want to give us the money and support for schools around the number we were initially talking about,” said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association. “But the question is when do we get it?”

With an additional $5 billion in property taxes, the budget for Oregon education for the next two years could hit $15 billion, Democrats said in a news release.

Rayfield told reporters Tuesday that the House plans to vote on the education budget, as well as a $140 million literacy package, as soon as possible.

But that money – and several other bills – is stalled by the now three-week walkout by Senate Republicans, who staged their protest as a bill on abortion rights and gender-affirming health care moved toward a Senate floor vote.

Kotek met with Republican and Democratic senators Monday in closed-door meetings, but that did not lead to resolve and a return to business. Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said in a statement Tuesday that Republicans would return on June 25, the final day of the legislative session, to vote on a budget for the next two years. Wagner said last week Democrats won’t allow Republicans to dictate which bills are voted on, meaning a budget would most likely pass in a special legislative session called by Kotek later this summer.

Republicans broadly support additional school funding. House Republicans tried and failed to force a vote on the House floor Tuesday on a bill proposed by Rep. Tracy Cramer, R-Gervais, with $10.4 billion in school funding. Cramer’s House Bill 3627 never received a committee hearing or vote.

Five Democrats – Reps. David Gomberg of Lincoln City, Annessa Hartman of Gladstone, Emerson Levy of Bend, Courtney Neron of Wilsonville and Ricki Ruiz of Portland – joined every Republican in trying to bring the measure to the House floor.

“Teachers and administrators have been clear: They need at least $10.3 billion to continue operating at current service levels,” Cramer said in a statement after the vote. “We know inflation will still impact our schools in the next biennium, and we must have sufficient resources to educate our children.”

Along with the $10.2 billion for the school fund, Rayfield and Wagner said Democratic leaders have agreed on a $140 million investment in the Early Literacy Success Initiative, a grant program to help school districts and community groups overhaul elementary reading instruction in Oregon schools and to support reading at home for kids before Kindergarten.

Districts and groups could use funds for reading coaches, tutoring and after school programs to help students most struggling to read. It would also help districts pay for new curricula and teacher retraining in elementary schools where evidence-based research and best practices have not kept pace with the reading instruction students are currently getting.

But the reading initiative and several other education proposals are also on hold because of the Republican walkout, including one to help recruit and retain desperately needed teachers and classified staff. Senate Bill 283 would grant a 20% pay increase for teachers and classified staff who work in special education, support initiatives to diversify the educator workforce and guarantee more pay and benefits to substitute teachers, among other efforts.

State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who convened a work group for more than a year to study Oregon’s persistent teacher shortages and to come up with solutions said in a statement that a small group of lawmakers are holding the state hostage.

“This unconstitutional walkout is threatening our chance to build a brighter future for our children,” he said. “We have big, urgent problems in our schools – like staffing shortages and literacy challenges – that we need to deal with.”

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Alex Baumhardt is a JPR content partner from the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Before that Alex was a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media.
Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. Julia is an award-winning journalist who reported on the tangled efforts to audit the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona.