It was a legislative session that began with a bang—the quick and disgraceful departure of Gov. John Kitzhaber—and ended with a whisper.
Last week, the Oregon legislature wrapped up a session that was intended to make bold moves to improve primary and secondary education in Oregon, and to manage the legalization of recreational marijuana. Yet, in spite of the big challenges—and opportunities—presented to the state lawmakers, there were only minor changes here and there; maybe not quite the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but something like twiddling thumbs, and certainly not a legislative session for the record books.
Oregon on-time graduation rates continue to sit at the bottom of the national rankings, stuck around a paltry 70 percent, with particularly miserly graduation rates in working class communities like La Pine and Redmond. The issue has been unduly partisan, with Democrats crowing about the importance of secondary education and Republicans lamenting that funding is woeful—yet not seemingly able work together on a pathway forward.
In spite of the crisis, very little positive was accomplished to support K-12 education this past legislative session. Kitzhaber had been a stalwart supporter for education, and had recently blueprinted his so-called 40-40-20 plan: Under the plan, by 2025, 40 percent of adults in Oregon would hold at least a Bachelor's degree; 40 percent an Associate's degree; and, the remaining 20 percent a high school diploma or equivalent. It was an ambitious plan that required at least a full decade to implement and bring up graduation rates, yet this legislature made few meaningful strides towards those goals.
State Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) had championed an $8 billion budget for K-12 schools, but only $7.2 billion was approved; an amount that was eventually bolstered to $7.4 billion with the addition of anticipated tax revenue from pot sales. Although the budget was reduced—which does not bode well for future advancements—there were several highlights; like, increased spending to help English language learners, with $3,000 allocated for such students, and also State Rep. Gene Whisnant (R-Sunriver) co-sponsored a successful bill mandating that the Oregon Department of Education design means to better track spending on education programs and student progress. The biggest and most encouraging support for improving education in Oregon came from Senate Bill 81, the "Oregon Promise" plan, which approved $10 million to cover tuition for as many high school graduates as possible to attend community colleges.
One noteworthy change in state law was handed down on July 3, when the legislature approved a bill approved to nudge up speed limits on rural sections of Central and Eastern Oregon roads; most pertinent, Hwy 197/97 from The Dalles to the California border will be 65 mph, and Hwy 20 from Bend to Burns and Hwy 31 between La Pine and Valley Falls also will increase to 65 mph. Interstate 84 from The Dalles to the Idaho border will jump to 70 mph. Interestingly, these changes moved forward in part because of Gov. Kitzhaber's resignation, who, over the nearly two decades, has vetoed or opposed various attempts to raise speed limits, citing concerns that higher speed would lead to more accidents.
The session also ended with Gov. Kate Brown signing into law four bills that a coalition of labor unions and community groups had pushed as part of a "Fair Shot for All" campaign. The bills were intended to help working class families improve employment opportunities and working conditions; most significantly, the legislature passed Senate Bill 454, which improves access to paid sick time for employees, a bill that will affect half a million working Oregonians. But, in spite of this success, the centerpiece for working families—raising the minimum wage—remained unresolved. A full-time worker at minimum wage will continue to earn less than $20,000 annually.