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2023 Legislature opens with promises and perils for schools
The 2023 Oregon Legislature begins its session Tuesday, Jan. 17. Education advocates are bracing for a tough one. There is less money to go around this time, and schools aren’t the first thing most legislators are talking about.
Odd-year Oregon legislative sessions revolve around putting together a state budget for the next two years, figuring out how to spend on pressing issues while maintaining programs already in place. The State School Fund, which provides about two-thirds of school districts’ money, is the biggest piece of the puzzle, but issues such as housing and homelessness are crowding for attention.
“The budget will be tight, but providing for our students’ education should be legislators’ No. 1 priority,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green.
Economic growth is slowing, and economists expect Oregon to slip into a mild recession in 2023. The December economic forecast painted a sobering picture: State revenue for 2023-25 is predicted to be about $3 billion less than it was for 2021-23.
A December Department of Administrative Services and the Legislative Fiscal Office report says the state needs roughly $560 million in additional revenue for expected expenditures while maintaining current service levels.
“Current service level” is a loaded term, though. The idea is to predict how much money it will take to maintain staff levels and programs, but different calculation methods get different results.
The December report says that, based on past spending patterns and state-mandated formulas, the State School Fund would need to rise from $9.3 billion to $9.5 billion to avoid cuts. School business officials, looking at the actual budgets of school districts, say schools will need significantly more to avoid cuts at most districts.
“The December report only gave us a 2.36% increase when everyone knows inflation is higher than that,” Green said. “Just look at the price of milk or gas, which schools have to buy too.”
Gov. Tina Kotek holds the next move in the school budget process. She must offer a recommended state budget by Feb. 1, laying down markers for the coming debate.
Nearly 2,000 bills have been filed already, with hundreds bearing some link to education. Many are placeholder bills calling for studies, which can have their language replaced later when legislators know what they want to do.
OSBA’s Legislative Services team monitors all bills related to education and offers updates through its weekly newsletter, Legislative Highlights. This year, Legislative Highlights plans to pay particular attention to the State School Fund process with regular information and context.
Oregon’s homelessness crisis is the top priority for many legislators and Kotek, and it is an issue for schools as well. More than 18,000 Oregon students experienced houselessness during the 2021-22 school year. Those students need extra support, including internet access, transportation, counseling, supplies and nutrition.
Workforce shortages, particularly in schools, will be another top-of-mind legislative priority. Other than adding to the State School Fund, the Legislature has limited tools. Options include looking at ways to ease the requirements for working in schools and adding incentives to draw new people and persuade current employees to stay.
Morgan Allen, Coalition of Oregon School Administrators deputy executive director of policy and advocacy, said worthy causes will be competing in a tight budget year, but legislators will have more than $2 billion in budget reserve funds to tap if a recession comes.
COSA’s legislative priorities will be adequate funding for education and helping students recover from the pandemic, Allen said. But with more than a third of the Legislature new to the building and new leadership teams at the top, this session will be “significantly different” from recent years, Allen said.
Kotek replaced Kate Brown, who had been governor since 2015. Kotek’s website holds an ambitious list of education outcome goals, but she hasn’t proposed legislation to get there.
Kotek has hired Melissa Goff to advise on education policy. Goff is a former Philomath School District and Greater Albany Public Schools superintendent who most recently was OSBA’s deputy executive director.
Kotek served as House speaker from 2013 to 2022, the longest speakership in Oregon history, before House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, took over. An attorney, Rayfield has been in the House since 2015. His education priorities include restoring electives for a well-rounded education and reducing class sizes, but his legislative career has been mostly focused on budget issues.
Senate President Rob Wagner is in his first year of leadership after now-retired Sen. Peter Courtney led the chamber for more than 20 years, another record. Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, worked for the
American Federation of Teachers Oregon and has two sisters who are public school teachers. He was a Lake Oswego School Board member from 2017 to 2020.
Wagner was appointed to the Senate in 2018 before winning the seat that same year. Among his proudest legislative accomplishments are Adi’s Act, which requires schools to have a suicide prevention plan, and Senate Bill 664, which requires schools to teach about the Holocaust and genocide.
Democrats control the governor’s office and both Legislature chambers, but Republicans gained enough seats in the last election to end Democrats’ three-fifths supermajorities.
Rep. Boomer Wright, R-Coos Bay, is optimistic the parties can work together on education issues as long as they keep children’s best interests as the focus.
“I think we are all there for the betterment of education,” said Wright, the House Education Committee vice chair.
Wright spent more than 30 years in education before retiring as the Mapleton School District superintendent in 2002. He wants to tackle issues of school workforces, curriculum transparency, parental rights and protecting local control.
Green said a lot of legislators are talking about increasing schools’ transparency and accountability, which can often impinge on local decision-making.
Coos Bay School Board member Arnie Roblan says meeting with legislators to share local expertise is one of the most important things school board members can do. Roblan served in the House and the Senate from 2004 to 2020 and was one of the chief architects of the historic 2019 Student Success Act.
“Get to know your local legislators so you feel comfortable talking to them, asking them questions and providing them information,” Roblan said. “Remind them that all of them got there by saying they wanted to improve education.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA