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An update on the recent session

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The 2011 legislative session is now complete (it ended Thursday). Two weeks ago witnessed the passage of 14 bills that will have far-reaching effects on education in Oregon. Although a few of the bills are problematic, it was a classic legislative compromise where Democrats and Republicans, the House and the Senate, and the governor all got things they wanted and some things they would have preferred to live without. Viewed in total, the bills represent a major step forward for our state, easily the most significant education reforms in decades.

The passage of these bills was not without drama, both because of disagreement on the substantive merits of the proposals but also because some of the bills were brought to the House floor without the benefit of being fully heard and amended in committee. Committees are where the most important work happens, and some of the bills that we passed could and should have been improved before they came up for a vote of the full House. In part because of these objections to process, I voted 'no' on several bills in the package including HB 3645 (dealing with charter schools), HB 3681 (dealing with students' ability to transfer to different school districts) and SB 248 (dealing with full-day kindergarten).

The most challenging bill for me was HB 2301, which allows the expansion of online 'virtual' schools. Virtual schools have been a hot topic since I first arrived in the Legislature in 2009. Although I was initially a skeptic, I have met with dozens of students and parents of students who are flourishing in online schools. I have come to believe strongly that virtual schools serve an important role for students who, for a variety of reasons, may not thrive in a traditional school environment. The challenge is that the growth of these programs has outpaced the state's ability to ensure proper governance and accountability. Because HB 2301 allowed further expansion without addressing these important issues of governance, I reluctantly voted against the bill, and it failed 30-30. After proponents agreed to new language that will bring governance issues forward in the February 2012 session, I agreed, along with two other representatives, to change my vote to 'yes' when the bill came up for reconsideration. Passage of this bill also assured that the additional bills in the education package, many of which I strongly support, could be passed.

Other important bills include the following:

* SB 909 establishes a unified 'zero-to-20' approach that will enable us to address the education needs of the state in a integrated way, fulfilling a major objective of Gov. Kitzhaber to stop funding K-12, community colleges, and universities as distinct and unrelated 'silos.' This is a tremendous advance for Oregon.

* SB 552 allows the governor to appoint the Superintendent of Public Instruction. No longer having a separately elected superintendent is a vital step that will consolidate accountability for education at the state level.

* SB 252 will give teachers the ability to design local systems that support and strengthen their own skills in the classroom.

* SB 5055 provides an additional $25 million for K-12 education beyond what the Legislature approved earlier this session.

Rep. Chris Garrett, Lake Oswego, represents Oregon House District 38.