Students do the talking

Lydia Wade-Sully, a junior at Portland’s Cleveland High School, and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, talk during a September session of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on School Success.

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, and the House followed suit.

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 when a statewide business association — Oregon Trade & Industry — announced it had switched from potentially opposing the bill to being neutral. As Oregonians later learned, closed-door negotiations with OBI — that is, accept the Democrats’ final offer — occurred even as the committee meeting was supposed to be underway.

The proposed 82-page final version of the bill was not made public until barely 45 minutes before the meeting.

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 different kinds of businesses. Also, small businesses were not afforded the political negotiations afforded to OBI.

Meanwhile, the Legislature had made no progress on controlling the PERS debt that consumes more and more of school district, local government and state budgets.

PERS was one reason the Republican senators boycotted the Senate this week, asking that the bill be sent back to committee for reworking. A budget subcommittee now is scheduled to discuss PERS on Friday.

There remains a profound disconnect between the supermajority Democrats and the superminority Republicans. A Eugene Democrat recently 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. They resorted to requiring that every bill be read word-for-word before the House debates and votes on it.

The House-passed version of HB 3427 — the Oregon Student Success Act — was a victory for Democrats, not for Oregonians. Can Senate Republicans bring the Legislature to its senses?

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