A year ago, Congress' "job approval" rating hit an all-time low, 13 percent. Over the past year, that approval rating has climbed to 23 percent, which yes, is an improvement, but still dismal, and still hamstrung by the constant partisan bickering and stunts like writing letters to Iran's leaders.
But not everything at the U.S. Capitol is broken.
Last week, Rep. Greg Walden, who represents pretty much all of Oregon east of the Cascades, helped resurrect and restore the Secure Rural Schools Act. Although not a perfect or necessarily long-term solution, the Act will provide tens of millions in federal funding to schools in rural counties.
First passed in 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act stepped into a void left by waning timber sales. In the previous decades, hundreds of rural counties received a quarter of revenues generated from timber sales from national forests. The arrangement was controversial—ballyhooed by environmentalists as a sort of "blood money"—but it delivered millions each year to fix rural roads and fund schools. But, as timber sales plummeted in the '80s and '90s, the plan proved to not be sustainable.
In 2000, Congress wisely stepped in and changed the funding system for counties and schools with passage of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The law replaced revenue sharing with a guaranteed level of payments no longer tied to the amount of timber produced from the national forests.
But unfortunately, the Secure Rural Schools Act also is neither secure nor solid. It first expired in 2006, and has since been renewed a couple times; it has been subject to the whims of Congress, and in the final days of the last Congress was pulled from the omnibus spending legislation.
However, at that same time, just before Christmas, Rep. Walden secured a commitment from House Speaker John Boehner to get the program re-funded by the end of the first quarter of this year—and, right at deadline, they are doing just that. At press time, it is scheduled for a vote and is likely to move easily through the Senate.
It is a plan worth about $300 million annually to rural counties in 39 different states, and includes a heavy dose of funding for Central and Southern Oregon. Rightfully so, Walden's staff pointed to Josephine as a prime example: Without the Secure Rural Schools Act, the county would lose $1 million in federal funding and need to cut its 9-1-1 service and lay off several law enforcement officers.
Thirty-three of Oregon's 36 counties qualify for the funding, money that is particularly keen because it is delivering funding directly to schools in rural areas, including Deschutes and Jefferson counties.
For the past two years, Oregon has ranked as one of the states with the worst on-time graduation rates in the country—and more than any other indicator, the primary demographic to not graduate was not race or gender-based, but socio-economic; overall, 70 percent of those who did not graduate were from low-income families, the bulk located in these rural counties.
Summit High and Bend High, both of which draw from solidly middleclass and suburban neighborhoods, have strong on-time graduation rates (92 percent, 90 percent), while other schools in the same school district, but drawing from more rural and poorer areas have distinctly lower graduation rates—with La Pine Senior High right at the state average (72 percent), and Redmond High only graduating two out of three students (67 percent).
Rep. Walden helping restore funding for the Secure Rural Schools Act is an example of finding an important solution for an immediate problem.
And, what's more, the restoration of the Secure Rural Schools Act shows an important ability for bipartisan work, as Rep. Walden's office worked with Rep. Peter Defazio, a progressive Democrat who represents much of the mid-Willamette Valley.
Two gold stars for Rep. Walden this week!