The state's most powerful political force got rolled in the 2011 Legislature.
Last week, Gov. John Kitzhaber and his allies rammed a dozen education bills through roadblocks erected by the 48,000-member Oregon Education Association.
A coalition of Kitzhaber, House Republicans, a few Democrats willing to buck the teachers' union, and newly emboldened interest groups handed the OEA its biggest policy setbacks in years.
"There is a strong desire for real movement forward on education, and people were willing to break a few eggs to get there," says Rep. Chris Garrett (D-Lake Oswego), one of three Democrats who voted "yes" on HB 2301, a controversial online charter-school bill that catalyzed the breakthrough.
To be sure, OEA successfully pushed for a $175 million increase in the K-12 budget over Kitzhaber's opening proposal, and the union helped forestall any significant changes to the Public Employees Retirement System this session. But in terms of educational politics, this session saw substantive bills that have been stymied for many sessions zip through.
"This is by far the most productive education session for two decades," says Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), who chaired the Senate Education Committee and saw two bills he's pushed since 2003—full-day kindergarten and cutbacks to Education Service Districts—finally win passage.
Known by some lawmakers and lobbyists as "No-EA" for its resistance to change, the teachers' union engaged in an all-out effort to preserve the status quo in a session where an evenly divided House (each party has 30 seats) and a tiny Senate majority for Democrats (16-14) made gridlock likely. But balance also meant that if a couple of Democrats ignored OEA's wishes, big changes could occur.
"I think the message for OEA might be, 'You've got to change the way you lobby—you can't just be against things,'" says Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), who joined Garrett and House Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) in voting for HB 2301.
Garrett, Clem and other lawmakers say they think there is a significant gap between rank-and-file teachers' desire to change the way K-12 education currently works and OEA's intransigence.
"I've sensed more openness on the part of teachers who are in the classroom every day," Garrett says. "I think maybe their institutional leadership is lagging behind that."
The passage of the package—which included provisions to expand charter schools; the consolidation of state K-12, community colleges and higher-ed boards into an "Education Investment Board"; the end of the state superintendent of schools as an independent, elected position; a cutback in Education Service Districts; and an authorization allowing public schools to offer full-day kindergarten—may not propel Oregon's schools out of mediocrity immediately, but it shows OEA's clout is diminished.
Much of that clout comes from the union's money. Since January 2008, state filings show, the teachers' union has spent more than $8.5 million on political campaigns, including more than $1.1 million to help Kitzhaber win last year. That is far more than any other group, public or private (see âYour Teacher is Fâd,â WW, March 23, 2011).
"Right now, if you're a Democratic legislator in Oregon, your political future is largely determined by your relationship with OEA. That's a fact," says Sue Levin, a lobbyist for the education advocacy group Stand for Children.
OEA's investment in Kitzhaber provided the group with access—no interest group or leader shows up on the governor's calendar more often than OEA and its executive director, Richard Sanders, who met with Kitzhaber six times in the first half of 2011.
But OEA erred early on with Kitzhaber. In 2010, the union endorsed Kitzhaber's chief rival, former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Even in the face of multibillion-dollar state budget deficits, Bradbury, who had little chance to defeat Kitzhaber, promised big K-12 funding increases.
In May, Kitzhaber's staff drew up a list of about a dozen education bills. Crucially, that list included three bills on charter schools that were important to Republicans—and unacceptable to OEA. The union said it would oppose Kitzhaber's top education priority—Senate Bill 909, which establishes the Education Investment Board—if the charter-school bills remained part of a package.
(OEA particularly disliked the bills because charter schools can employ non-union teachers and online charters employ few teachers of any kind. The union opposed Education Service District changes because OEA members could lose their jobs, and it worries that the loss of an elected state superintendent and creation of an Education Investment Board would dilute OEA's political influence.)
In recent sessions, opposition by OEA killed bills. But Kitzhaber—whose prolific veto pen won him the nickname "Dr. No" during his previous tenure as governor—told Republicans he would sign any education bill in the package that got to his desk.
OEA spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau says her group is very disappointed with some of the bills that passed and the governor's intention to sign them.
"Since educators, parents and school leaders were cut out of the discussions the governor had, we don't know what was promised," Uherbelau says. "But it's a bad deal for students, and Oregonians who value education will be disappointed with the result."
Kitzhaber overcame OEA's opposition with the strong support of such groups as Stand for Children, the Chalkboard Project and the Oregon Business Association, whose interest in previous sessions focused far more on funding than reform.
House Education Committee co-chairman Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville) points to the emergence of Stand for Children—which in the past had primarily rallied parents to fight for greater funding—as pivotal.
"The dramatic, rapid evolution of Stand for Children as a force for real change surprised me and a lot of other people," says Wingard, who works for an online charter school when not legislating.
âEven after this session started, I saw [Stand] as too close to OEA, but I was wrong,â Wingard adds.
How OEA will react—by changing its tactics, punishing rebellious Democrats or embracing reform, as affiliates in Illinois, Ohio and Delaware have done—is unclear. "Our members support people who support public education," Uherbelau says. "Our scorecard will reflect the votes people took [on charter bills]."
Levin hopes Stand for Children can provide financial support to lawmakers who have dared oppose the union.
"We have commitments to our political action committee far in excess of anything we've ever raised in the past," Levin says. (Those commitments won't become cash until later this year, but in far-bigger Illinois, Stand raised $4 million this year.)
Levin credits Chalkboard, OBA and legislators for working together to move an agenda, but says Kitzhaber made the real difference.
âThe conditions were right, and the governor pounced,â Levin says. âHe cajoled and hammered and supported through the deal.â