Voter approved measure allocating money for vocational training in limbo

FILE -- A bipartisan group pushed for full funding of voter-approved Measure 98 on Monday, March 13, 2017 at the Capitol. The measure aims to help Career Technical Education students, or CTE. (KVAL File Photo)

Last November, Oregonians agreed the state's low high school graduation rates was unacceptable and possible solutions being offered by a measure that required money be set aside for vocational training were worth a try.

By their 2 to 1 approval of Measure 98, voters said that whenever good times in the economy generate an extra $1.5 billion-plus in biannual tax revenue, lawmakers must preserve a $300 million-chunk — less than 5 percent of the state's K-12 education budget — for mandated spending on career-technical education, dropout prevention and college-credit opportunities. School districts must also be monitored and audited for compliance.

Yet, five months later, the fate of Measure 98 remains in limbo at the Oregon Legislature.

Facing a $1.6 billion hole in Oregon's upcoming budget and influence by the state's public teachers union in Salem, lawmakers are moving several proposals to dilute or fundamentally alter Measure 98 as voters intended.

So far, the House and Senate education committees have recently advanced bills that'd pull "unspecified" amounts of Measure 98 dollars for other uses, such as hiring social workers in elementary schools and setting up student grants with the Oregon Future Farmers of America Association.

The only major effort to keep the measure mostly intact has been through a loosely-organized "work group" under the Oregon House that worked on a proposal to give schools more spending flexibility as requested by teachers. The work group's proposal could be reflected in an amendment to House Bill 2246, a placeholder bill up for vote Monday afternoon by the House Education Committee.

Related: Lawmakers, advocates demand full funding of Measure 98

"We need to see this get to classrooms before there are a ton of changes to it," Toya Fick, executive director of Stand For Children Oregon, the local chapter of the Portland-based nonprofit behind Measure 98, said during an interview with the Associated Press. "It's unacceptable to dismantle and cut the measure before it even has a chance to reach our classrooms and benefit our students."

The state's teachers union, the Oregon Education Association, participated in the work group but ultimately opposes its proposed HB 2246 amendment.

"We appreciate the work group's efforts, but do not believe they have done enough to create the flexibility our schools need to develop and enhance programs that will meet the needs of Oregon's students," OEA President Hanna Vaandering said in a statement.

Stand For Children has drawn ire from the OEA for its backing from the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the Walton family behind Walmart. Measure 98 had broad endorsements and zero opposition; educator groups like OEA, which backed the now-failed Measure 97 corporate tax hike, declined to endorse it.

The defeat of the unions' business tax made fears of a $1.6 billion-shortfall a reality for Oregon's 2017-19 budget, which is largely the result of soaring retirement and health care costs of public employees and retirees who make up the unions' memberships.

It's still unclear where budget talks are headed in Salem. Gov. Kate Brown has proposed a $8.1 billion K-12 education budget, less than what school districts say they need, and cutting Measure 98's funding carve-out in half.

Meanwhile, OEA recently filed an amendment to Senate Bill 353, another placeholder bill, that'd gut Measure 98's funding requirement and strip its mandates, essentially making it an opt-in grant fund. The revised version of SB 353 is up for vote Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee.

"We're in a situation where we're about to cut $500,000 from education budget," said Democratic Sen. Arnie Roblan, who chairs the Committee. "I'm not saying this is the best bill we've ever written. But it's better than not having anything, which I was concerned about."

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