SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon lawmakers ended weeks of negotiations over major education initiatives Friday and advanced 13 bills toward votes in the House and Senate, setting up a showdown with politically powerful education interests that oppose key pieces of the compromise.
The agreement between Republicans, Democrats and the governor's office would allow up-or-down votes in the Legislature, but lawmakers say there's no consensus that any particular bill will pass. It's unclear whether proponents will be able to muster the needed bipartisan majorities in the House, which is evenly divided between the parties. House and Senate floor votes could come as soon as Monday.
The package gives each party and the governor an opportunity to advance their top education priorities.
Republicans want expanded access for charter schools and more opportunities for students to attend schools outside their home district. Democrats want more funding for schools, expanded access to full-day kindergarten and the ability for schools to opt out of education service districts. Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to merge the governance of education into a single panel called the Education Investment Board.
"I think it would be the most significant education reform that any Legislature in Oregon has passed," said Rep. Matt Wingard, R-Wilsonville, who has doggedly pursued bills expanding charter schools and other school-choice initiatives.
Wingard's bills are particularly controversial and have stirred opposition from school officials and the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The union is encouraging teachers to contact their lawmakers and urge them to vote against Wingard's bills.
The bills would allow colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools in areas where the local school district declines, authorize more online schools and make it easier for students to transfer between school districts.
The union's vehement opposition puts some lawmakers — especially Democrats who were elected with the union's support — in a tough political position. Democrats worry Republican support for their initiatives would evaporate if the GOP bills fail.
The Oregon Education Association, with support from Democrats in the House, has been pressing lawmakers to dig deeper into a savings account known as the education stability fund to give schools more money in the next two-year budget. The deal would give them an additional $25 million from the fund, plus about $14 million shifted from the education service districts, which centralize some administrative, special needs and technical services among multiple school districts.
But the extra money isn't worthwhile if it brings charter schools and other initiatives that reduce school district coffers, union spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau said.
"They're looking at shifting money away from our schools that are already struggling, which will do long-term damage to our students," Uherbelau said.
The union is also opposed to a Democratic bill that would allow school districts to opt out of four education service districts — Multnomah, Willamette, Northwest Regional and Intermountain.
Other bills involved in the negotiations would:
- Designate the governor as the superintendent of public instruction, the state's top schools official, instead of allowing the position to be elected.
- Allow all school districts to receive funding for full-day kindergarten if they choose to offer it.
- Boost support for career and technical education.
"The education bills will really have a dramatic, positive affect on education in Oregon if they get through," said Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton.
Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael said the governor would sign the bills if they make it to his desk.
Chuck Bennett, a lobbyist for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, said school officials oppose the charter school bills, support Kitzhaber's Education Investment Board and have differing opinions on many of the other measures.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.