Why does a good legislative session for education feel bad for advocates?
Monday, March 7, 2022
The 2022 short session was busy. Record revenue windfalls brought deals and spending into a session that was already set up to have ambitious policy goals.
Although the 2022 session was difficult at times, it is fair to summarize OSBA’s session as fairly successful:
One of OSBA’s two main policy bills will become law (Senate Bill 1521: leadership continuity).
A long-sought bill will get money for public schools while removing them from a distracting policy entanglement (SB 1546: decoupling of the Elliott State Forest).
A few new legal requirements will come into law, but most of the bill proposals that were concerning died in committee.
And, most importantly, public schools will receive an unanticipated influx of hundreds of millions of dollars for targeted programs, including enrollment-funding stabilization for wildfire-affected districts (House Bill 4026), summer learning (HB 5202) and employee retention and training (HB 4030).
This is, objectively, a summary of a very good session for public education and a boon for industries, advocates and regions all over the state. But chats and discussions with most Capitol folks indicate that everyone feels like they are losing. Many legislators were disappointed that their bills died in the spending committee even with gobs of extra revenue.
So why, subjectively, did this session feel so bad? I have two possible answers.
As former Washington Post columnist and current sports talk show host Tony Kornheiser frequently quotes from Don Ohlmeyer: “The answer to all your questions: Money.” The staggering collection of hundreds of millions of dollars of excess tax revenue by the state represents a generational windfall. This influx of money meant that while legislators did spend money on a wide variety of policies, there was always a different policy area that got more money.
Objectively, these comparisons have no use. The cost of addressing homelessness is not related to the cost of addressing the ongoing needs of public school students or the cost of keeping the state Capitol safe for visitors and staff. But the way money moves also brings feelings, and although it may seem counterintuitive, this session had enough money for almost anyone to feel bad.
The second potential answer is one that is likely all too familiar to school board members: politicization and the growing political divide. Since at least early 2020, in response to national events including the COVID-19 emergency restrictions and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our politics have grown more divided. Research shows America is now remarkable in its division compared with other nations. School board members are quitting in response to mistreatment and politicization.
This division imperils public schools because public schools exist in the center of public life. In Oregon, K-12 schools are mostly state funded, locally managed entities that must meet the needs of every resident student in the district. The more divided Oregonians are in politics, the easier the tendency becomes to stop a bill or a policy simply because the other side likes it. This erodes the central foundation supporting public schools.
When a bill that’s good for students dies, it doesn’t matter whether a Democrat or a Republican killed it. It’s the students in the K-12 system who are left to deal with the consequences.