SALEM — An $8.2 billion proposal to fund Oregon's K-12 education system cleared its first hurdle in Salem on Thursday — the biggest school budget to-date and the state's single-largest obligation for the 2017-19 budget.
The funding figure represents the state's share of the K-12 budget, known as the State School Fund, the biggest source of school district funding that comes directly from state household, business and property taxes.
As lawmakers are in a gridlock over how to close an upcoming $1.4 billion shortfall that jeopardizes health care for 350,000 Medicaid expansion recipients, this week's education funding proposal is a 9 percent overall jump, or an $830 million increase, from the current budget schools are working with today, although the final numbers are subject to change.
Still, some of the state's 197 school districts say they need at least another $200 million to avoid teacher layoffs and other cuts. Even then, educators say Oregon schools are still underfunded by about $2 billion per biennium — a figure derived from the so-called Quality Education Model, or QEM, which is the state's metric for determining what's "adequate and equitable" school funding. The QEM estimates have been major drivers behind controversial proposals to boost taxes on businesses, both at the ballot last year through the failed Measure 97 initiative and a similar package backed by Democrats in Salem that is currently in limbo.
The preliminary State School Fund proposal, Senate Bill 5517, prompted opposition from Democrat Rep. Diego Hernandez, a freshman lawmaker and board member of the Reynolds School District, during the Education Subcommittee hearing. Hernandez ultimately did not vote on the funding package because, mid-meeting, he was swapped out without explanation and replaced by fellow Democrat Rep. Nancy Nathanson, who helped pass the bill along party lines.
"How can we be content with mediocrity? ... We cannot continue to short-change our education system," Hernandez said shortly before his temporary removal ahead of the vote.
With adequate funding, Democrats such as Hernandez and House Speaker Tina Kotek say schools could lengthen the school year, reduce class sizes and boost staffing of counselors and nurses, among other things commonly used to measure how well an education system is doing.
Within roughly the past year the state climbed one spot to No. 20 for per-pupil spending, according to the National Education Association, while slipping one spot to 48th lowest in the nation for high school graduation.
The subcommittee's two Republicans, Reps. Julie Parrish and Gene Whisnant, voted against the education package, saying the disconnect largely stems from the state's lack of control over how education dollars are spent by individual school districts, where payroll, pensions and health care for teachers and other administrators are the biggest cost drivers.
"While the student population in Oregon has grown by 20,000 students since my first term in 2011, the education budget has grown nearly $3 billion dollars," Parrish said. "Voters and parents should be demand to know why that money isn't reaching children. We need a reset on the systemic cost drivers that are starving resources from our classrooms."
The proposal now goes to the full Joint Ways and Means Committee, which handles budget and finance topics.