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2021 session wasn’t all advocates dreamed but wasn’t nightmare either
The 2021 legislative session concluded Saturday, ending a session unlike any before.
COVID-19’s social distance demands caused most of the session work to be held virtually, disrupting the usual flow of business and contributing to occasional partisan disruption. Progress on adequate school funding stalled, and education advocates often felt stifled after the success of the historic 2019 session.
There is still reason to be proud of the session’s work, though, with some important bills for schools passing.
The budget made for a contentious and frustrating session. The combination of an influx of COVID-19 federal relief dollars and a jump in revenue based on a booming economy that no expert saw coming led to the strongest revenue cushion the state budget has seen in a generation.
In the session’s final projection, state economists were stunned as they announced "unexpectedly strong revenues” of more than $1 billion above their previous projections each biennium through 2025. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, described the increase as unbelievable, saying "In all my years at the Oregon Legislature, I have never seen a forecast like this."
And yet discussions about critical funding for schools stumbled. There was disagreement on how much, exactly, needed to be allocated to the State School Fund to simply avoid cuts.
The legislative calculation of roll-up costs for K-12 schools, a.k.a. current service level funding, was $8.97 billion. Education advocates disagreed with legislative assumptions and demonstrated that the actual allocation would have to be $9.6 billion to avoid cuts at most school districts.
In January, before the amazing revenue projections, Gov. Kate Brown proposed a $9.1 billion State School Fund. Like the Miser of Aesop’s fable, legislative leadership seemed more interested in throwing excess revenue in a budget-reserve hole than allocating it to adequately fund schools. By the close of session, the State School Fund settled at $9.3 billion, an amount that will force many districts to choose between making cuts to services and staff or dipping into reserves to simply remain whole for the next two years.
Although the SSF allocation is disappointing, other budget bills had a positive finish. Revenue projections for the corporate activity tax that funds the Student Success Act soared. The Student Investment Account portion of the act, which funds payments directly to schools, finished at a projected revenue of $892 million, more than $90 million above previous expectations. The High School Success Account, created by Ballot Measure 98, received the full funding amount of $311 million from the Legislature. Many other targeted investments, referred to as “grant-in-aid” programs, received current service level funding or better.
This session, the education committees and the Legislature spent a great amount of time and energy discussing matters of race, equity and justice. In education, these discussions were underscored by a variety of bills that OSBA supported, including:
- HB 2001, which allows some consideration of cultural or linguistic experience in certain layoff decisions.
- SB 732, which requires school districts to establish equity advisory committees and gives broad latitude to school boards about the composition of those committees.
- SB 52, which establishes a statewide LGBTQ2SIA+ plan.
- HB 2697, which codifies existing Department of Education “Every Student Belongs” rules and prohibits the display of certain hate symbols.
Other OSBA priority bills also made it through the legislative process, mostly addressing specific issues facing school districts.
After years of advocacy, HB 2330 to make existing temporary funding formula corrections permanent finally became law. Although few school districts require these corrections, those that do depend heavily on them. Making the corrections permanent resolves a lingering OSBA lobbying goal.
Other bills making temporary policy decisions advanced, including SB 743, which avoids double payment to online charter schools for students not in attendance. Unfortunately, HB 2630, a bill to make sure school districts hardest hit by the 2020 wildfires will not face a dip in funding through 2025 was scuttled by legislative leadership in the Ways and Means Committee. In a hearing late in session, Ways and Means committee staff indicated that leadership and budget staff decided not to move HB 2630. Assembled legislators on the committee expressed surprise that bill would not move, and House Speaker Tina Kotek committed to running a similar bill in 2022. That is cold comfort to those fire-affected districts and it will drive education lobbying next session.
Unfortunately, some bills passed that OSBA opposed, most notably SB 580. The bill mandates bargaining about class size in contract negotiations. After extensive lobbying by OSBA and allies, the bill was amended so that the mandate will be required only at schools with the poverty-related federal Title I designation. These changes will help target all mandatory discussions toward the students who can benefit most from class-size reductions.
In 1974, in his farewell address at the close of his second term, Gov. Tom McCall implored listeners with "a request that the search for equity in school finance and educational opportunity be continued." Almost half a century later, the search continues. And it seems likely that many of the equity and student resources questions the Legislature was unable to resolve in 2021 will be revisited in future sessions.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist