“A slippery slope.”
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
A “massive structural shift.”
For months, Oregon education leaders and advocates have expressed strong support for a new, $140 million state investment in helping young kids in the state learn to read. But those same advocates are coming out against the state Legislature’s plan for how to fund that initiative.
That’s because in the last week, legislators have changed how the early literacy legislation, House Bill 3198, will be funded.
A subcommittee of the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee approved amendments this week that would move away from using money out of the state general fund to support early literacy, as initially proposed. Instead, HB 3198 would pull funding from a corporate income tax, which funds a separate grant program to benefit schools.
Passed in 2019, the Student Success Act funds three different education accounts through a tax on businesses. Under that law, at least 50% of funds from the tax go to the Student Investment Account, up to 30% go to the Statewide Education Initiatives Account, and at least 20% go to the Early Learning Account.
The Statewide Education Initiatives Account funds several programs, including the state’s success plans for specific student groups, a school meal program and summer program grants. Early Learning includes grant funds for Preschool Promise and professional learning for child care providers.
All school districts receive funds from the Student Success Act’s largest pot of funding, the Student Investment Account, with the amount based on a weighted student formula. The goal of that spending is to help students with their mental health or behavioral health needs and to improve academic outcomes for historically underserved student groups.
Amendments to the House Bill 3198 now propose funding a bulk of the state’s Early Literacy plan through the Student Investment Account.
Julie Neburka from the Legislative Fiscal Office told the subcommittee Monday that the decision was made to use funds from the SIA due to the “ongoing,” stable funding generated by the business tax. Neburka added that funding under the SIA is only increasing, and that spending those additional funds on early literacy will not affect “current programming.”
Advocates at the state and local level are pushing against the change, though, both in public statements and during a public hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means education subcommittee.
“While I appreciate the desire to institutionalize early literacy support, and I would certainly support it, it cannot happen at the expense of the other crucial work funded by the Student Success Act,” said Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero in a statement dated Thursday. In his message, Guerrero asked Portland legislators to vote against the amendments and support “additive funding for the Early Literacy Initiative.”
“Oregon must address disparate education outcomes across a variety of spheres, and school districts cannot do that well when we pit multiple education initiatives against each other within the same funding source,” Guerrero said.
According to a document shared by the state’s Legislative Fiscal Office at a work session Wednesday, $115 million is set to come out of the Student Investment Account for “Early Literacy Success School Grants.” Ten million would be directed from the Statewide Education Initiatives Account part of the SSA budget and go toward “Early Literacy Grants” for community-based organizations. As proposed, those two new grant programs would pull $125 million out of the more than $2 billion in the Student Success Act budget for 2023-2025.
The Oregon Education Association’s Louis De Sitter called the plan to use SIA funding a “cut.”
“The intent of the SIA is to allow local districts to make targeted, equity-focused investments in students based on community need, particularly in mental health and in class size,” De Sitter said during a public hearing Monday.
“By opening that money up to statewide initiatives, you start a slippery slope of carve outs to critical funds for student support.”
Representatives from the Oregon School Employees Association, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, and the Oregon School Boards Association all opposed the funding method for the plan, too.
“Honestly, [it] feels like a raid on the SIA, or an ATM, or a piggy bank when we can’t find funding,” said OSBA’s Director of Legislative Services Lori Sattenspiel.
Representing Gov. Tina Kotek’s office as the state’s Education Initiative Director, Pooja Bhatt applauded the $140 million allocated for early literacy but also expressed concerns about how the plan was taking shape.
“We too have concerns about the SIA funding mechanism that appears to be a carve out,” Bhatt said.
Kotek had proposed $120 million for early literacy in her budget shared earlier this year. The overall state budget for K-12 education in Oregon is still up in the air. It remains a critical unfinished piece of state business, as Senate Republicans continue to freeze legislative progress through their walkout.
After Monday’s public hearing, the committee reconvened Wednesday for a work session, where Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill echoed the concerns shared by other education officials. He called the amendment a “significant change” to the original framing of the Student Success Act.
In addition to concern about pulling funding from the SIA, Gill warned against the unintended consequences of another aspect of the new amendment to HB 3198. Gill was critical of “limiting” funding through the Early Literacy initiative by focusing exclusively on specific schools and districts that need the most help.
“To me, it’s similar to somebody suffering a heart attack and offering them a Band-Aid,” Gill said. “It would be ineffective and it really does ignore all the preventative work that has to be done.”
But despite the pushback, the education subcommittee of Joint Ways and Means approved the amendment, with the three Republicans on the committee voting no.
The bill now moves on to a vote from the full committee.
The initial amendment to the bill showed up online Sunday, June 4. While voting for the amendment, Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, said he was “uncomfortable” with the whole process, noting that he’ll be watching implementation closely.
“I’m a chief sponsor of this bill and I’m concerned with how this all played out,” Ruiz said.