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Historic 2019 Legislature sets up significant education work ahead
Gov. Kate Brown symbolically signed the Student Success Act in May at Salem’s Washington Elementary School with a backdrop of students. The act is one of the most significant education bills in generations and has been widely celebrated. (Photo by Rachel Baker, OSBA)
Legislators concluded the business of the 80th Legislative Assembly at 5:24 p.m. Sunday, June 30, and left the building. Although it was contentious at times, 2019 was the best session for Oregon K-12 education in the modern era.
The Student Success Act, House Bill 3427, promises to bring dedicated funding to education after decades of inadequate legislative allocations. The bill’s commercial activity tax is projected to put $1.6 billion into education in the 2019-21 biennium alone. For years education advocates have been calling for stable and adequate school funding. This session the policy finally crashed through.
The Student Success Act also provided revenue for a $9 billion State School Fund, a 9.8% increase over the previous biennium. Approximately $643 million will come from revenue raised by the Student Success Act, which only amplifies how important that bill is to schools and students.
Some legislators and corporate interests opposed the bill, and there is an effort to refer it to the ballot. If that happens, there will be a special election on Jan. 21, 2020. The possibility of referral means our work on the bill is not done. OSBA will continue to be vigilant in preparation for a possible election, ready to show Oregonians the strong value of this unprecedented education investment.
The Legislature not only raised new revenue but also delivered some cost containment. Senate Bill 1049 makes changes to the Public Employees Retirement System, reducing rates. The bill, if it survives expected legal challenges, would save schools hundreds of millions of dollars by blunting budget-crippling PERS rate increases.
The money is the big education story for the 2019 session, but there were also myriad policy bills that will benefit schools. Bills passed will address sexual misconduct in schools (SB 155), suicide prevention (SB 52), public insurance double coverage incentives (HB 2266), sexual harassment policies (HB 3077), executive session federal privacy compliance for school board meetings (HB 2514), and opioid overdose medication (SB 665).
This tremendous session for education was less tremendous in many other aspects, though, particularly regarding bipartisanship. Senate Republicans walked out twice, denying the Senate a quorum and halting legislative business. The tactic effectively killed three Republican-opposed bills: carbon emission controls, gun regulations, and limits on medical vaccination exemptions.
The walkouts and the rhetoric around them have heightened emotions and destroyed relationships. Senate President Peter Courtney has struggled to maintain his tradition of bipartisanship, and in the session's closing days tempers flared.
Sen. Herman Baertschiger, the Senate Republican leader, when asked during the return news conference about the walkouts' effectiveness, said, “We won.” He meant that the Republicans stopped carbon tax legislation, but that’s the kind of talk that Democrats will not forget.
Sen. Dallas Heard called Sen. Shemia Fagan a dictator during a heated exchange in the chamber Sunday. She responded on Twitter by characterizing his rhetoric as a term for fertilizer.
Some senators, including Sen. Sara Gelser, felt threated by Sen. Brian Boquist’s recent incendiary statements. She refused to be on the floor with him. A motion to allow her to vote on bills she missed while off the floor was initially opposed by some Republicans. It was a toxic and rancorous final day.
Eventually the Legislature wrapped up business, but at what cost?
Looking forward, the next big task for education advocates is the implementation of HB 3427. For the Legislature, the next step will be dealing with climate policy. Gov. Kate Brown said she is willing to use all tools at her disposal to move forward carbon emission controls.
For the public, it seems like the future holds more ballot measures. The two-thirds legislative quorum requirement comes from the Oregon Constitution, and there are progressives who are mumbling about a ballot measure to lower that requirement. There could be ballot measures on climate change policies and gun control in addition to a challenge to the Student Success Act.
It is fair to say that 2019 was a great session for Oregon K-12 public education. We will continue to present detailed legislative information at meetings over the summer and fall. We will also be producing a full, detailed legislative report in the coming weeks with our partners at the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.
There is a lot to unpack.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist