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Regional Interests

Gov. Kate Brown blasts Oregon lawmakers’ school funding plan

Gov. Kate Brown tours Sitton Elementary in Portland, Oregon, on March 5, Brown’s approval numbers were low in a recent DHM Research poll, though her push  to get Oregon students back in the classrooms was well received.
Gov. Kate Brown tours Sitton Elementary in Portland, Oregon, on March 5, Brown’s approval numbers were low in a recent DHM Research poll, though her push to get Oregon students back in the classrooms was well received.

Gov. Kate Brown this week issued a blistering rebuke to lawmakers’ plans to fund K-12 education for the next two years, suggesting a portion of the budget could be illegal and that a plan to increase spending could shortchange students who have been historically left behind.

“The budget you have crafted does not make additional investments to address the historic disparities inherent in our school system that have disadvantaged generations of Black, Indigenous, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color…” Brown wrote Monday, in a letter sent to fellow Democrats, House Speaker Tina Kotek, Senate President Peter Courtney and top legislative budget writers. “Let me be clear: I will not sign a budget that leaves students from communities of color behind.”

The target of Brown’s ire is $9.3 billion lawmakers are planning to deposit into the State School Fund for the 2021-23 budget. The fund is the largest single appropriation in the state’s budget and pays for K-12 schooling throughout Oregon.

As the Oregonian/OregonLive reported Wednesday, the $9.3 billion spending plan is a little more than $300 million over what state budget staff say would be necessary to fund schools at the current level of service. And it’s around $200 million more than Brown and top budget writers initially proposed spending in their respective initial budget proposals.

But Brown has a big problem with where legislators want to get that additional $200 million. Lawmakers would pluck those dollars from a reserve fund known as the Education Stability Fund, or ESF, which is meant to rescue schools when economic downturns risk cuts to education.

The Education Stability Fund is accessible to lawmakers only when certain conditions are met. Among those conditions: expected revenues being at least 2% less than than initial projections, or the governor declaring a funding emergency for public schools. Brown says neither of those has occurred.

“The Legislature is considering a potentially unconstitutional use of Education Stability Funds in the K-12 school budget which, if it were to become law, would cause unnecessary confusion and disruption for our school districts and students after a year of uncertainty during the pandemic,” Brown wrote.

Lawmakers say there’s no issue. The Legislature dipped into the Education Stability Fund last year as the state braced for an enormous hit to revenues brought on by COVID-19. The revenue picture has improved significantly since then — to the point that Oregon is now expected to take in more during the current two-year budget period than the state projected prior to the pandemic, and also has billions in federal aid to spend.

But the Legislature says that doesn’t matter. A written opinion that Kotek obtained from legislative lawyers on Monday suggested that, since conditions were met once during the current budget biennium to tap the Education Stability Fund, it remains fair game.

“The Legislature feels they’re on solid ground to move forward with that,” state Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat and lead legislative budget writer, said Wednesday. Rayfield suggested dipping into the fund was a matter of strategy, since the state is expecting a budget shortfall in two years, but conditions might not be met then to use the money.

“We have ample reserves but because of the unique dynamic of a pandemic we may not be able to access them,” he said.

Brown, meanwhile, characterized the move as “raiding one-time funds from our state’s savings accounts to cover ongoing and increasing operating expenses,” a move she said would “necessitate pink slips for teachers and programs and service cuts for our students when the one-time funds you spend today disappear in the next biennium.”

Those words offered a strong hint that Brown could veto the proposal, Senate Bill 226, which passed out of a subcommittee on Wednesday and is scheduled for a vote in the budget committee on Friday.

More than criticizing lawmakers’ plans for reserve funds, though, Brown lit into the Legislature for a budget she said doesn’t prioritize student equity, a claim that was met with bewilderment by some in the state Capitol.

“Enlarging a budget for a school system built on a foundation of Oregon’s history of racism will benefit white, affluent students at the expense of students of color and students from families with lower incomes in urban and rural communities,” wrote Brown, who serves as the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and so oversees the education system. ”I cannot support a school budget that spends more without making investments in unfinished learning and equity, and without input directly from those communities about how the money should be invested.”

Brown did not offer any suggestions in the letter for how she would better prioritize the money, instead stressing that lawmakers should slow down and accept more community input.

“The governor wants to see a deliberate process to engage leaders from communities of color about how that money should be spent,” Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, said when asked about the letter. “Some examples include creating grants for school districts to work directly with BIPOC communities to address students impacted by COVID-19, developing anti-racism practices and implementing trauma-informed learning in schools.”

Boyle said Brown could support spending up to $9.3 billion on K-12 education if lawmakers engage in such a process, but that in no case does she believe dipping into reserve funds is legal.

The governor concluded her letter to lawmakers on a particularly acid note, writing: “You may be willing to wait another two years to make equitable reforms — to yet again promise to communities of color that we’ll get it right ‘next time.’ I am not. Let’s get this done. Let’s get it right. My door is open.”

While Brown and lawmakers spar over how to spend $200 million, schools officials around the state have argued that even $9.3 billion isn’t enough. They’ve instead pressed lawmakers to put $9.6 billion toward K-12 education for the next two years.

“To help our students regain their footing, both academically and emotionally, we need to be able to re-engage, to support their needs, to rebuild our learning communities,” John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, wrote in testimony submitted in March. “Our students need your investment in them now more than ever.”

House Republicans on Wednesday signaled their support for stepped-up education funding, too. State Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, attempted to introduce an amendment in committee to put $9.6 billion into the State School Fund. It went nowhere.

Senate Bill 5514, the primary budget bill for K-12 schools, could get a vote in the full Senate as early as next week.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting