Oregon Senate approves unified education board

Oregon Senate approves unified education board

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Senate voted Monday to merge education oversight into one unified board controlled by the governor, handing Gov. John Kitzhaber a preliminary victory on one of his signature legislative priorities.

The bill was one of four approved in the Senate in a package of education bills expected to get House and Senate votes on Monday. Altogether, the 14 bills would provide more money for schools and vastly remake the structure of education in Oregon.

Senators voted 21-8 to approve the bill championed by Kitzhaber. It would merge education agencies under a single birth-to-college oversight board known as the Education Investment Board, controlled by the governor and 12 people of his choosing, subject to Senate confirmation.

Kitzhaber has long complained that responsibility for educating children, teens and college students is fragmented into independent "silos" that are fighting with each other to get as many dollars as they can from the Legislature. He hopes the board, described in SB 909, would force all educators to play nice.

But critics said it would give the governor too much power and weaken the Legislature's ability to set education policy.

"What we are doing with this is handing off our responsibility, handing off our authority, to the executive branch," said Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg. "We are on a pathway to make the Legislative Assembly irrelevant in the state of Oregon.

Senators also voted 18-11 to allow school districts to opt out of education service districts, which centralize some administrative, technical and special curriculum services between multiple school districts.

Supporters said the bill, SB 250, would create competition for those services and drive down costs while potentially eliminating a layer of administration.

"This bill is designed to get more money in the classroom where it's needed," said Sen. Rob Monroe, D-Portland.

But critics worried it would harm small school districts if larger ones opt out and reduce the pot of money.

The House is scheduled to take up all 14 education bills later on Monday, including controversial measures expanding access to charter schools and online education.

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. Those bills are vehemently opposed by lobbyists representing teachers, administrators and other school officials.

Other bills scheduled for House votes 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 deal was hatched in private negotiations, and some of the bills in question will proceed with little or no opportunity for public comment. Some lawmakers and lobbyists have said the Legislature is moving too fast.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.