Oregon Legislature deadlocks on education bills

Oregon Legislature deadlocks on education bills

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Monday was supposed to be the day when the state Legislature voted on 14 bills that would provide more money for schools and vastly remake the structure of education in Oregon.

Lawmakers took all day, spent hours debating and meeting behind closed doors, and they accomplished...virtually none of it.

The state House deadlocked on Monday after one Republican priority failed in a House vote. After hours of private meetings, they delayed the votes until Tuesday and each party accused the other of reneging on a deal.

The House split in a 30-30 tie on a bill that would expand access to online charter schools, sending it for defeat as two members of each party crossed the aisle to side with the other.

It needed 31 votes to pass, and several lawmakers reserved the right to call a new vote on the issue in the future. Republicans thought they had enough support to pass the bill, and Democrats thought the GOP had agreed to allow up-or-down votes on every measure.

"I think tomorrow we will reconsider and I'm cautiously optimistic that it will pass and we can move on," said Rep. Matt Wingard, a Wilsonville Republican who has aggressively pushed to improve access to charter schools.

He declined to say whether Republicans would try to block the remaining bills if the online charters measure fails again on Tuesday.

Democrats said they were concerned that the bills they support will be killed because of GOP disappointment.

"It's absolutely essential in this process...that when you make an agreement you stick to the agreement," said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and co-chair of the budget committee.

The bill is a priority for Wingard and other Republicans in the House, who say it would provide more families with access to alternative forms of education that might work better for their children.

It's opposed by interest groups representing school districts and teachers, which argue that the tax dollars shouldn't go to for-profit companies that offer education over the Internet.

"That money needs to stay in Oregon, in Oregon's public schools to buy the things that Oregonians need for their kids so that we can actually educate our students," said Rep. Phil Barnhart, a Eugene Democrat who voted against the bill. "This bill does not accomplish that."

Wingard's public relations firm does work for Oregon's largest virtual charter school, Connections Academy. He declined to say how much money he makes from the company but said it was roughly equivalent to a starting teacher's salary and had no impact on his support for charter school legislation.

The charter school measure, HB 2301, is among the most controversial of 14 education bills that were scheduled for House and Senate votes on Monday.

Other GOP-backed bills similarly seek to expand school choice. They 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.

Democrats want more funding for schools, expanded access to full-day kindergarten and the ability for schools to opt out of education service districts.

Earlier Monday, the Senate advanced four pieces of the package, including a bill allowing some school districts to leave their education service district, which provides centralized administrative, technical and special curriculum services for multiple districts.

Supporters said the bill, SB 250, would create competition for those services and drive down costs while potentially eliminating a layer of administration. But critics worried it would harm small school districts if larger ones opt out and reduce the pot of money.

The Senate also advanced a proposal to merge education oversight into a single birth-to-college board controlled by the governor. The measure is one of Gov. John Kitzhaber's signature legislative priorities. Both those proposals go to the House.

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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.