SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon House changed course on Tuesday and narrowly approved a bill expanding online charter schools after defeating it a day earlier, handing Republicans a victory and putting back on track a package of education bills that had stalled.
In the end, all 14 bills passed the House and Senate and were sent to Gov. John Kitzhaber, who has said he will sign them. Altogether, the bills will provide more money for schools and significantly overhaul the structure of education in Oregon by expanding alternative forms of learning and offering free full-day kindergarten to more children.
The package gives Republicans, Democrats and Kitzhaber a little bit of what they wanted for education.
The House voted 33-27 to approve the online schools measure after three Democrats changed their positions from a day earlier. The Democrats — Reps. Brian Clem of Salem, Chris Garrett of Lake Oswego and Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay — said they decided to support HB 2301 after Republicans promised to pass follow-up legislation that would require the creation of a structure for governing online schools.
Clem said that a 30-30 partisan tie in the House means that lawmakers have to compromise.
"At some point there is no more House Republican and House Democrat, there are representatives, and they do whatever they can to get to a yes for each and every one of their neighbors," Clem said.
The bill was fraught with emotion from lawmakers in both parties and faced vehement opposition from the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, along with groups representing school administrators and others.
"I'm really disappointed," said Gail Rasmussen, OEA president. "I really think that in the rush of trying to get out of Salem, some really bad bills were passed that will do some real harm to schools and students in this state."
Oregon law currently requires that at least half of the students enrolled in an online charter school are from the school district that sponsors it. The bill approved Tuesday would lift that cap and allow up to 3 percent of students from any school district to attend an online school without permission from their home district.
A follow-up bill will create a task force that will design a system to oversee online schools, which are likely to grow significantly as a result of the legislation.
The package of education bills was supposed to move through the Legislature on Monday, but the House deadlocked after the online-schools bill failed in a tied vote. After hours of private meetings, lawmakers delayed the votes until Tuesday and each party accused the other of reneging on a deal.
The House's reversal on Tuesday drew a rebuke form Democratic Leader Dave Hunt of Gladstone, who issued a statement calling it "a backroom deal in the dead of night."
"We will continue to fight for openness and transparency, and that any deals done that affect our kids are negotiated before their bedtimes," Hunt said.
Proponents championed the measure as an opportunity to provide unique education to the relatively small number of students who would benefit most from online instruction.
The measure is among the most hotly contested of the 14 education bills advanced to the governor. Another controversial charter school bill, HB 3645, which would allow community colleges and universities to sponsor charters, also passed after Republican proponents agreed to make changes requested by the community colleges.
"This is our opportunity to take away some of the shackles for the institutions" that would like to sponsor a charter school, said Rep. Matt Wand, R-Troutdale.
Lawmakers also voted to take the state schools chief off the ballot. The bill, SB552, would designate the governor as the superintendent of public instruction. The position is currently a separately elected position held by Democrat Susan Castillo. It takes effect when Castillo leaves office.
Supporters say the bill would make the position less political and help the state select the most qualified leader to run the Department of Education. Opponents say voters deserve to have a say on such an important position.
Schools will get an additional $25 million next year from the Education Stability Fund, plus about $14 million that was originally slated for education services districts, which provide centralized administrative, technical and special curriculum services for multiple school districts.
"We are trying to do the best we can, as we have over the last couple of years, with the resources that we have," said Sen. Richard Devlin, a Tualatin Democrat who is the Senate's budget chief. "This budget I think represents a very good attempt to put something forward that keeps our basic services in place."
Lawmakers voted to create a new education oversight agency called the Education Investment Board to be controlled by the governor. The measure is a top priority for Kitzhaber, who hopes the board will eventually take over governance of education from birth through college with power to recommend budgets and to direct policy across all agencies involved in teaching.
Other education bills sent to the governor would:
- Provide more support for career and technical education.
- Allow some school districts to opt out of their education service district and retain 90 percent of their share of ESD funding
- Authorize full funding for school districts that wish to offer all-day kindergarten.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.