Wednesday not only marked the first day back to school for many Portland students, it also marked the signing of a $1 billion per-year statewide education funding package.
Gov. Kate Brown visited Jefferson High School in north Portland on Aug. 28 to welcome freshmen and to kick off the school year by ceremonially signing the Student Success Act in front of students and school board members. (Brown officially signed the bill into law May 16. Money from the act is on top of the $9 billion approved for public education's two-year budget.)
"That's the billion additional dollars in our education system," Brown told Jefferson High students to cheers and applause as she headed over to add her signature to the bill.
Passed by the Legislature in May, the Student Success Act, or House Bill 3427, is a new corporate activity tax that is estimated to generate an additional $1 billion per school year for education programs and initiatives across the state.
Brown called the bill a "total and complete game changer for education in Oregon."
Gov. Brown discusses the Student Success Act Wednesday morning at Portland's Jefferson High. https://t.co/SJmjpSYQ2A— Portland Tribune (@ThePortlandTrib) August 28, 2019
The funding stream carves out extra money to be spent on early childhood education programs, and seeks to curb expanding class sizes — a focal point of walkouts and protests the prior school year by teachers and students who decried having too many students in their classrooms, combined with an overall lack of education funding in Oregon.
"I was hearing from parents and students all across the state that, particularly in the early grades, our classes are too large," Brown said following the signing celebration. "One of the uses for the Student Success Act is to reduce classroom size. I think the other important piece is to make sure that our kids show up to kindergarten ready to learn."
The funding bill also has provisions to better prepare high school students for the future through a "middle college" program.
"You could graduate not only with a high school (diploma), but with an associate's degree as well," Brown told students. "And you can have a big jump up on the world of career, and that's a very good thing."
HB 3427 came on the heels of rallies from teachers' unions for smaller class sizes and better investments in schools. In some districts, like Beaverton, school boards talked of mass layoffs to make up for budget shortfalls. Weeks later, opponents of the bill in the Legislature were outnumbered and the bill was passed. Efforts to refer the measure to voters also died off months later.
"I think it was really clear that our teachers and our students have been doing more with less for years, and everybody had just had it," Brown said. "We not only had the economic opportunity, we had the willpower to make it happen. This was definitely a collaborative effort. We had the business community at the table, we had teachers at the table, we had parents at the table, and most importantly, we had students saying 'now is the time,' so I'm pleased we were able to get this done."
The funds are expected to be made available to school districts via grants in the 2020-21 school year.
Portland Public Schools board Chair Amy Kohnstamm said the school board soon will begin the real work of planning for the extra funds. "We're just beginning the process of how to allocate the money," Kohnstamm said. "The Student Success Act has different buckets, so it's not just a dump into the general fund. We're looking at the achievement gap, we've had great support for career technical education programs ... but we haven't started board discussions yet."
Kohnstamm's son just graduated from high school in June. She said, like the governor, she's been advocating for improvements to education for nearly two decades. "It's been the saga of the arc of my kid's education," she said.
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