PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Funding for schools, literacy programs and special education teachers in Oregon — a state where 60% of third graders can’t read at grade level — could be jeopardized by a Republican walkout that has stalled hundreds of bills and derailed the Legislature for nearly six weeks.
The standoff over a bill that would expand access to abortion and gender-affirming health care could scuttle much-needed education funding in a year when the stars seemed to align for Oregon’s budget.
Tax revenues have exceeded state economists’ projections, allowing lawmakers to approve a record K-12 budget of $10.2 billion. But the education spending legislation needs a vote from the Senate, which hasn’t been able to conduct business since May 3 because of the GOP boycott, and time is running out, with just two weeks left until the legislative session ends.
“Supporting strong schools and improving student outcomes should be enough to make anyone show up for work,” Democratic state Rep. Courtney Neron, the House Committee on Education chair, said at a recent rally against the walkout. “From early childhood through higher education, our schools and students need us to respond to serious challenges.”
Oregon’s Senate Republican office said in an email that “it is critically important that we make sure education is fully funded.” Republican minority leader Sen. Tim Knopp also said in an email his caucus will return by June 25 to pass “substantially bipartisan” bills and budgets.
But Democrats say waiting until the session’s last day to pass budgets isn’t feasible and school districts need a sense of potential funding by early July to begin planning for the next school year.
“There’s no way that we can pass all the budget bills on June 25,” Democratic state Sen. Michael Dembrow, the Senate Committee on Education chair, said in an email. “Just doing budget bills in both chambers will take several days.”
If lawmakers don’t return soon, Dembrow said he suspects Gov. Tina Kotek “will need to convene a special session at some point to do the budgets.”
As in other states nationwide, reading and math scores plummeted in Oregon following the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures hit young children particularly hard, depriving them of critical in-person instruction needed to learn how to read. About 60% of third graders in Oregon are not proficient in reading or math, according to the latest state assessment results.
In addition to the $10.2 billion K-12 budget, which passed the state House with bipartisan support, the Senate Republican walkout also could derail education bills seeking to shore up pandemic learning losses and tackle the education workforce crisis.
One such bill aims to address shortages of teachers and other school staff, particularly in rural areas, and boost pay for special education teachers. Another would invest $140 million in a new early literacy initiative for children from birth through third grade. The initiative is a centerpiece of Kotek’s agenda.
“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 those really important bills that could really reshape the way reading is taught and could really transform student experiences with learning are … now being held hostage to a totally separate issue.”
The early literacy bill in particular received more than 150 written public comments. Among other things, the measure would fund tutoring for struggling readers and direct schools to base literacy instruction on science of reading research, which emphasizes the importance of phonics when teaching children how to read.
Anna Ingram in Eugene was among the parents who testified in favor of the bill. She described feeling angry, anxious and hopeless as she saw her son having trouble learning 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.
“Actually sounding out the letters in the word was not recommended,” she said in written testimony. “He’s learned to read because I shell out thousands of dollars a year to have him tutored with explicit, systematic instruction.”
Education spending in 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, D.C.
“We have probably more need for thoughtful, smart, careful policymaking in education than we have in generations. This was a bigger hit for U.S. schools than anything in recent memory,” he said of the pandemic.
“When the resources are potentially there, I think it is extremely important that we use them and use them well,” Valant added. “Because the resources are not there forever.”
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Claire Rush, The Associated Press