$6.245 billion closer for Ore. schools


It's (almost) official: Oregon's 197 school districts can count on getting $6.245 billion in state money to carry them through the next two years, barring any sudden economic downturns.

Members of the Joint Ways and Means subcommittee on education signed off on that amount Thursday, smoothing its way to near-certain approval by both chambers. School districts around the state have been pegging their budgets to that amount since mid-March, when the co-chairs of the legislature's budget-writing committee announced the $6.245 billion figure.

That's slightly less than the $6.3 billion schools advocates had pushed for at the beginning of this legislative session. But several said Thursday that they were happy with the figure, and would push for any additional funding that turns up, perhaps from higher-than-anticipated lottery returns, to be dedicated to community colleges.

The money works out to per-pupil funding of $6,460 for the 2007-2008 school year, an increase of $347 from current spending levels. That works out to 41.4 percent of the state's overall budget.

Lawmakers said that they'd like to do even more for public schools, but that this year's budget was still a "build-back" from the cuts of 2001-2003.

"We are once again taking a step backward by failing to deal with the root cause of what is going on," said Rep. Bob Jensen, R-Pendleton, who has been a high-profile advocate for a complete overhaul of the state's tax system. "Our education dollars are weighed in the balance and found wanting, and Oregon children are paying the price."

The money does come with one catch. Lawmakers set aside $260 million of it for a "school improvement fund" &

meaning districts can only spend their portion of that money on a few prescribed programs designed to raise student achievement. Smaller class sizes, after-school programs, teacher development and mentoring, vocation education, literacy programs and full-day kindergarten are among the choices.

State Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, and State Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee, had proposed making schools compete for grants from the fund. But the powerful schools lobby objected strenuously to that proposal, and won. The final version makes clear that the money will be distributed to all districts, on a per-student basis.

School districts will, however, be required to show that where they've chosen to spend the money has helped them make progress on state education goals, a concept that hasn't been without controversy. They'll also have to show that the programs they put in place are supported by scientific research.

Laurie Wimmer Whelan, a lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said the group is a believer in "meaningful accountability." But, she said, it can take years before results are measurable, and it can be hard to connect the dots between, say, teacher development and rising test scores.

Thursday's actions suggest that the end of the session is drawing near. Negotiations over the schools budget are traditionally contentious, and usually one of the final items to be decided.

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