Gov. Kate Brown and top lawmakers have found common ground on increasing money for K-12 schools in Oregon, after a pronounced disagreement came to light earlier in the week.
In a statement Friday, Brown’s office said the governor now agrees with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, that the state should budget $9.3 billion into the state’s main school fund over the next two years.
That amount is less than the $9.6 billion that school officials and Republican lawmakers have pushed for this year. But it’s roughly $300 million more than budget staffers say would be necessary to fully fund schools at current service levels. It’s also $200 million more than Brown’s own proposed budget for K-12 instruction.
That difference has led to notable tension between three of the state’s top Democrats. On Monday, Brown sent a blistering letter to Kotek and Courtney suggesting their plan to pull $200 million from a state reserve fund in order to reach their budget was unconstitutional and risked leaving disadvantaged students behind.
“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,’” Brown wrote. “I am not.”
Now, four days later, Brown’s office says an accord has been reached.
“The Governor appreciates that she, the Speaker, and the President are able to have open, honest, and sometimes contentious discussions, even when they do not all immediately agree…” Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director, said in a statement.. “Today’s announcement reflects the consensus on public school funding.”
About all that’s clear from Brown’s announcement is the dollar amount. Still unknown is whether legislators will seek to pull that money from reserves -- which Brown has said would be illegal, but lawmakers believe is fair game -- or whether a new revenue forecast scheduled to be unveiled next week will turn up the extra $200 million. While the particulars of that forecast are unclear, officials have suggested lottery and income tax receipts might be higher than anticipated.
Also uncertain is how lawmakers might spend the additional money to address disparities and the impacts of COVID-19 on underserved student populations, as Brown demanded in her letter. “In the coming days, the Governor’s Office and legislators will work with education leaders and leaders from communities of color to identify concrete actions to be undertaken in partnership with school districts to further these urgent goals,”
The announcement came hours after the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee passed a schools budget that contains the full $9.3 billion out to the full Senate. In the same meeting, the committee punted on one piece of that proposal: a bill that would have authorized lawmakers to pull $200 million from the state’s Education Stability Fund, the reserve pool of cash that’s supposed to be tapped during recessions to avoid budget cuts.
Republican lawmakers once again Friday sought to send $9.6 billion toward the state’s school fund.
Oregon schools “have struggled to get out of the bottom,” House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said in that meeting. “I’ve worried this whole year: What does COVID do to that? I don’t understand why we wouldn’t do everything we can.”
State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Portland Democrat and budget co-chair, said that funding from a new business tax, federal aid and other priorities actually reflected roughly $12 billion in spending on students.