The Oregon House of Representatives last week passed a pair of bills that at first glance don't seem to have that much in common, other than the fact that they both involve the state's education system in some way.
But if you take a peek under the hood of both measures, you'll see that they have this in common: They're bandages (in at least one case, a potentially expensive bandage) that don't really get at the real issue: The fact that for years Oregon has chronically underfunded its schools.
Let's look at each bill individually.
We've written about the first measure before: House Bill 4113 would make class size a mandatory subject of collective bargaining between teachers and school districts.
Under current state law, teachers can ask for class size changes as part of collective bargaining, but it's not a mandatory issue that must be considered.
The obvious intent behind the bill is to reduce class sizes in Oregon schools. That's not a bad goal. But there's a catch: Smaller class sizes require additional teachers and facilities. Those cost money. The price tag for smaller class sizes throughout Oregon could be a budget-buster for school districts around the state. But the bill doesn't allocate an extra dime to help pay for those additional teachers and facilities.
Now, ask yourself this question: Would we be having this discussion if Oregon schools got enough funding in the first place to keep class sizes at reasonable levels? You know the answer to that.
House Bill 4113 is the sort of smoke-and-mirrors maneuver that the Legislature resorts to much too often, an attempt to dance around an issue without actually engaging the real problem. The Senate should kill the bill.
The other bill that recently passed the House is HB 4141, the so-called Student Voice and Transparency Act. This bill likely isn't the budget-buster that HB 4113 could be, but it's another example of legislators skipping right past the real issue.
HB 4141, which has been substantially watered down from its original version, would require Oregon universities to establish tuition advisory councils. Under the revised bill, these councils would advise university presidents as they prepare their tuition recommendations to the governing boards now in place at the state's universities. The final decision on whether to seek a tuition increase and how much that increase should be rests with the governing boards, but a presidential recommendation carries considerable weight with those boards.
The bill mandates that the advisory boards must ensure that students have "meaningful opportunities" to participate in the boards' deliberations. (If this means that students angry about tuition increases would be funneled to the advisory boards and away from the governing boards, we're not sold on the idea; members of the governing boards need to hear directly from students about the tuition increases they approve.)
The bill also says that tuition increases of more than 5 percent need to be approved by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, but this is not exactly a breakthrough, since that's already the case under state law.
All in all, the revised bill seems harmless enough, but it also seems kind of useless — unless you're among those people who believe that what Oregon's universities really need is another advisory board.
Proponents of the bill say that it will increase transparency in the tuition-setting process. In that spirit, here's some transparency: Oregon's universities need to increase tuition in large part because the amount of support they get from the state has been declining for decades.
The bill passed the House by a lopsided margin; our guess is that the Senate likely will follow suit. But don't be fooled: Here's another bill that just dances around the real issue.