Jubilant education supporters mark historic investment in schools
Gov. Kate Brown symbolically signed the Student Success Act on Monday at Salem’s Washington Elementary School with a backdrop of students. Brown officially signed the bill Thursday, May 16. (Photo by Rachel Baker, OSBA)
A corridor of students in green shirts waited at the Washington Elementary door to escort dignitaries to Monday’s ceremonial signing of the Student Success Act.
The Salem students weren’t clear on the details, but they knew the governor was coming for something important.
“We get to have more supplies for the schools,” said Jacqueline Mercado Azua, a fifth grader. “Sometimes schools don’t have enough supplies for their students.”
The Student Success Act is the culmination of decades of work to lift Oregon’s stagnant education funding, and legislators, educators and advocates celebrated. Cheers, applause, smiles and a few tears filled a multipurpose room as speakers tried to capture just what the act could mean for Oregon.
“Today marks a turning point for education in the great state of Oregon,” said Gov. Kate Brown.
The Student Success Act will generate roughly $1 billion a year for early learning and K-12 education, starting with the 2020-21 school year, from a new business receipts tax.
Districts will receive about half that directly through grants based on enrollment, with extra money for students in poverty. Districts will need to submit plans to the Oregon Department of Education to use the money in any of four areas: instructional time, students’ health and safety needs, class sizes and caseloads, and curricular opportunities.
OSBA Board President Tass Morrison said the law will change budget-planning conversations.
“Instead of deliberating on what or who to cut out of the budget every year, we can focus on our students’ needs,” said Morrison, a North Santiam School Board member.
La Grande Superintendent George Mendoza, who attended the signing, has a long list of uses for the funds: elementary school physical education teachers, counselors, a second nurse, career and technical education improvements, and a longer school day for starters.
“More needs are going to be met, for children and adults,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”
The Legislative Revenue Office has estimated districts’ share for the 2020-21 school year. School leaders around the state are excited about the possibilities.
The Baker School District will receive about $1.9 million. School Board Chair Chris Hawkins called it a “wow” moment for the budget.
“There are so many things to talk about it’s hard to pick,” he said.
Baker had a failed bond vote in the fall, and the school board is considering another bond try. Hawkins said the Student Success money will be used to enhance programming, not facilities, but that the district’s prudent and transparent use of the money could be part of the messaging for another bond campaign.
The Beaverton School District, the state’s third largest district, expects to gain about $33 million.
School Board Chair Becky Tymchuk said the act will allow the district to reliably expand programs that change students’ lives.
“In the past, we’ve ridden on a roller coaster,” she said. “It’s been tough to properly plan.”
Beaverton is facing a $35 million budget deficit because of changing demographics and cost inflation.
Although the grants will be based on schools’ State School Fund formula, even the smallest districts can expect to get enough to make a real difference.
The law instructs ODE to set a minimum grant amount for districts with less than 50 ADMw, the adjusted enrollment weight for the State School Fund. During bill deliberations, Sen. Arnie Roblan said the minimum should be about $60,000 so that small schools have enough money to at least add part-time staff or gear up a program.
Rod Hoagland, a South Harney School Board member, said that kind of money would mean a lot for his district. The K-8 district serves 11 students with two teachers and a paraprofessional. He said the school needs security upgrades and to replace its outdated computers.
The Student Success Act, House Bill 3427, will help districts in ways beyond just their grants. Half the new money will go to early learning and statewide initiatives. It fully funds Measure 98 and spends $40 million to expand free school meals. It will create the Statewide School Safety and Prevention System, a statewide youth reengagement system, and statewide equity initiatives.
The law provides for educator professional development and will spend $170 million in the first year on early learning programs to get children and families ready for school.
The act includes significant new ODE responsibilities, managing programs and resources and providing support for districts.
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill said the department would be guided by two key principles. He said ODE wants to maintain the law’s focus on equity and to approach all work in partnership with districts, communities and families.
Many who worked on the Student Success Act called it the most important achievement of their legislative careers.
Roblan, a former teacher, became principal at Coos Bay’s Marshfield High School just as the 1990 property tax limits were kicking in. He described it as the “exclusive opportunity to do more with less every year.”
He said at the ceremony that it was heartbreaking to see students fall through the cracks because they didn’t have the programs to help them.
“It was a disaster for all those years,” he told the audience.
Roblan said he came to the Legislature 15 years ago to shore up education funding.
As co-chair of the Student Success Committee, Roblan was central to more than a year of legislators’ listening to education advocates, visiting schools and researching what has worked best in Oregon and other states. The committee identified education underfunding as a central problem since 1990’s Measure 5 limited property taxes and shifted most school funding responsibility onto the state.
“When voters approved Ballot Measure 5, Oregonians were promised the state would pick up the slack on education funding. That has not happened,” Roblan said in an interview. “I am proud to say that we have corrected that wrong. And now, for the first time in nearly 30 years, we will be putting the resources into our schools that they deserve.”
Committee Co-Chair Rep. Barbara Smith Warner was on the Senate floor when the act passed and was among the first to congratulate Roblan. Smith Warner said she considered it a privilege to play a role at the journey’s end after so many had worked on education all their careers.
“I felt like I was there on behalf of every parent and every student and every teacher and every school board member who had raised the alarms and marched and made phone calls and wrote letters,” she said in an interview.
Smith Warner knows there is the possibility of a ballot referral, but she says the work the committee did to engage communities and gather a wide range of support, including business leaders, will help inoculate it against challenges.
And she said she would continue the fight, if necessary, because schools need adequate and stable resources.
“This is going to change the way our system functions,” Smith Warner said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA