Lawmakers let students do the talking on school changes

Lydia Wade-Sully, junior at Portland’s Cleveland High School, and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, during the Sept. 27, 2018, Legislature’s Joint Committee on School Success gathering at Portland.

The Oregon Legislature came oh-so-close to succeeding.

But after 16 months of excellent bipartisan work toward improving Oregon schools, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Student Success finally succumbed to … partisanship.

The committee put together a thoughtful, well-researched package of $2 billion investments in preschool and K-12 education. They targeted key areas, from better preparing youngsters for starting school, to strengthening career-technical education, to adding school counselors and greater access to behavioral health care.

Then came the backroom dealings.

Regardless of what happens now with House Bill 3427, its potential impact on Oregon students will forever be tainted by that partisanship. The Democrat-dominated Student Success Committee passed the bill on a party-line vote Monday evening, with only a few committee members taking time to explain their votes.

The bill’s badly needed investments in public education could, and should, be the chance to close the urban-rural and Democratic-Republican divides that impair educational progress. This bill, including the financial aspects, should have all Oregonians working together. That was how the Student Success Committee started out – traveling nearly 3,000 miles around the state, visiting 77 schools and talking with hundreds of students, teachers, parents and other community members.

That diligent work contrasted with the final partisan machinations.

Committee members had largely agreed on their recommendations for school improvements. Not so on the funding mechanism, a proposed tax on Oregon businesses annually conducting more than $1 million in in-state business activity.

The extent to which Democratic leadership controlled the outcome was evident at Monday’s meeting when a statewide business association announced it now was neutral on the bill instead of questioning the business tax. That revelation was a surprise to Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, even though he is a co-vice chair of the Student Success Committee.

The proposed 82-page final version of the bill, which included the changes sought by the trade group Oregon Business & Industry, was not made public until barely 45 minutes before Monday’s meeting was scheduled to start.

Such haste is unwarranted. It contradicts the transparency that legislators said they expected from school districts in making these new investments. It virtually guarantees that the legislation will contain unnoticed flaws and create unforeseen consequences for a future Legislature to remedy.

Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, pointed out there was no detailed analysis of how the commercial activity tax — a kind of sales tax on many business transactions — would affect various kinds of businesses. Neither were small businesses afforded the political involvement to given to OBI.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has made no progress on controlling the PERS debt that consumes more and more of school district, local government and state budgets. That inaction is unconscionable.

There remains a profound disconnect between the supermajority Democrats and the minority Republicans. On Monday, a Eugene Democrat sent out a constituent newsletter that, among other things, highlighted bipartisanship in the Oregon House. “While the national conversation continues to be divisive and partisan, in Oregon we pride ourselves in working together across party lines,” Rep. Julie Fahey wrote.

If only that were true. At the very same moment the newsletter was distributed by email, frustrated House Republicans were doing the best they could to slow the Democratic political steamroller. That had resorted this week to requiring that every bill by read word-for-word before the House debates and votes on it. (For HB 3427, which was scheduled for a Wednesday morning vote in the House, that would be more than 20,000 words.)

The final version of HB 3427 — the Oregon Student Success Act — was a victory for Democrats, not for Oregonians. It was an opportunity lost.

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