The Oregon Legislature had a lot on its plate this year. We owe a huge thanks to the Stand members and legislators who vocally supported our priorities over the last few months. Many community members and parents stood up for students this session by writing their representatives, sparking conversations in their communities, and even traveling to Salem to directly lobby for students. We are grateful also to the legislators who took tough votes and threw their influence behind Stand-supported bills, as these bills will improve educational outcomes for kids throughout the state.
This year saw many wins for kids and for Stand advocates, including English Language Learner (ELL) reform, expanded higher education access and funding for full-day kindergarten. The Legislature put money towards Career and Technical Education, Accelerated Learning, ELL program improvement, and Early Learning programs.
Unfortunately, this session also included some let-downs, such as the failure to prevent the personal kicker and the passage of a testing “opt-out” law, which reduces Oregon’s ability to keep track of student success and puts hundreds of millions in federal funding at risk. Below is a list of important highlights that Oregonians, and especially school advocates, should be aware of:
- English Language Learners. HB 3499, which passed unanimously in both chambers of the legislature, represents a significant accomplishment for Stand parent leaders and members of the advocacy community who have been working for years to improve educational programs for students learning English in our K-12 system. This bill improves accountability for the financial resources in ELL programs and provides extra support to those districts struggling the most to produce successful outcomes. It will allow the Oregon Department of Education to take over control of the .5 extra funding weight per ELL student in districts that are consistently underperforming for their these students. HB 5016 provides a carve-out in the school fund of $12 million to implement these improvements. The Oregon Alliance for Education Equity, Rep. Gallegos and Rep. Whisnant were key partners on this bill.
- School Funding. The state legislature appropriated $7.4 billion for K-12 education in 2015-2017, which was short of the $7.5-7.8 billion requested by various education organizations across the state. The nominal increases from last biennium provide for new full-day kindergarten programs in every district. Most districts will operate at current service levels and avoid drastic cuts, but this does not allow us to substantially hire back staff members whose positions were cut during the Great Recession. Unfortunately, we also found out this session that reforms to the state’s pension system from the 2013 legislative session were ruled unconstitutional. This will set school budgets back significantly beginning in the 2017-18 school year.
- The Kicker. This year, Oregon’s forecasted revenues will be higher than economists previously anticipated, resulting in the infamous Kicker “kicking,” sending back half a billion dollars to citizens in the form of tax credits. Rep. Tobias Read introduced legislation (HB 3555) that would have diverted a portion of kicker money to a rainy day fund and schools. Unfortunately, despite urging from advocates and Stand members across the state, House Committee on Tax & Revenue leadership refused to even schedule a public hearing for HB 3555. Oregon missed a critical opportunity to put in place a more stable fund for education.
- Statewide Assessment and Opt Out. One of the more contentious education bills of the session was the endeavor to pro-actively encourage Oregon K-12 students to “opt out” of new standardized testing. HB 2655 requires schools to hand out notices drafted by ODE to parents on their student’s right to opt out of statewide summative assessments. The bill also essentially removes the consequence of a lowered school ranking for schools whose participation rate falls below the federally-mandated 95%. This jeopardizes the integrity of our state's, districts' and schools' ability to identify areas and student subgroups needing improvement. It also puts at risk about $140 million in federal Title I funding. Another notable passage related to assessment was HB 2713, which directs the Secretary of State to gather information on the impacts of statewide summative assessment on public schools (including instructional time).
- Instructional Hours. The OEA and Rep. Buckley tried to push through SB 957, which would have undone the work of many advocates to effectively define what qualifies as instructional hours and guarantee that all our students are receiving adequate amounts of learning time in school. Fortunately, in large part thanks to the voices of many Stand parents and advocates, this bill did not make it through the legislature. The conversation continues, thanks to concerned parent voices, on the inadequacy of educational schedules for Oregon kids.
- Attendance. Unfortunately, Stand’s efforts to make a comprehensive change to how the state addresses chronic absenteeism were unsuccessful. A bill that would have modified the state school fund formula from a measure of enrollment to a measure of attendance met with many political roadblocks. This is particularly troubling as Oregon launches into its first year of statewide full-day kindergarten because we know that the early grades are plagued with high chronic absenteeism. Thankfully, in part due to awareness raised this past year, districts across Oregon are beginning to take this issue more seriously. Bethel School District in particular is going to be utilizing their summer bridge program for incoming kindergarten students to implement more explicit strategies to encourage positive attendance routines and to provide better data and evaluate promising practices (their effectiveness, costs, and scalability). Additionally, advocacy efforts with coalition partner (Chalkboard Project, Children’s Institute, and Oregon Business Association) and the Department of Education, to secure better reporting of data on chronic absenteeism were successful.
- Higher education. There was a general trend of expanding access for Oregon’s higher education students this session, including legislation that provides opportunities for undocumented Oregon students to have access to state financial aid through the Oregon Opportunity Grants (tuition equity). Another notable passage was SB 81, which establishes the Oregon Promise tuition waiver program, amounting to $10 million in state appropriations to help ensure students can attend community college debt-free.
Overall, this was a session full of critical debates and some key bill passages. Thank you again to everyone who stood for children during this political season. We look forward to continuing this important advocacy within local communities, during the implementation of laws from this session, and also during the approaching election year!