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Business summit: Kitzhaber defends proposed education budget's small funding increase

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PORTLAND, Oregon — Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday defended his proposed budget from critics who say it shortchanges education, telling a crowd of business officials that pouring more money into education won't improve graduation rates or student achievement.

A week before he takes the oath of office to kick off his fourth term, the Democratic governor spelled out his vision to use state funding to nudge school districts to make the education changes he seeks.

He's proposed a budget that would direct most new education money toward preschool programs. Ensuring children are ready for kindergarten and reading with their peers by third grade will keep them from falling behind when they reach high school, Kitzhaber has long said.

He also wants to change the school funding formula to reward schools that show success in certain areas, such as getting English language learners up to speed and investing in new career-focused classes.

"The money has to come from somewhere," Kitzhaber said, and pulling it out of some areas to funnel toward education may have a detrimental impact on children.

"The money we're spending on housing, the money we're spending on mental health, the money we're spending on stabilizing families has a huge impact on the ability of these young kids to succeed," Kitzhaber told the executives, lawmakers and lobbyists gathered at the annual Oregon Business Summit in Portland.

Some school advocates have said the governor's proposed budget wouldn't provide enough money to reduce class sizes or provide training for teachers.

Kitzhaber sported a small bandage on his left cheek. His spokeswoman, Amy Wojcicki, said he had a skin biopsy.

The business summit is a platform for the state's most politically connected business officials to promote their priorities for the legislative session that begins next month. They're pushing for stronger connections between education and careers, a large package of infrastructure projects and investments in natural resources.

In a second speech hours later, Kitzhaber celebrated the new jobs created by an improving economy but lamented that wages have been stagnant for decades.

"This recovery is actually leaving more and more of our fellow Oregonians behind," Kitzhaber said. "Sometimes, I feel a little bit disingenuous talking about economic recovery, because I am sure that term does not have much meaning to hundreds of thousands of people in this state."

He challenged the business leaders to "engage with me in a serious conversation about the inherent contradiction between a rapidly growing economy and the increasingly desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens."

The governor and senior legislative leaders all spoke supportively of approving a statewide transportation project, but they did not discuss specifics. A transportation bill would likely be funded through an increase in a fee or tax — such as the gas tax or vehicle licensing fees — requiring a three-fifths majority from both the House and the Senate. It would need to do have overwhelming bipartisan support — and lobbying from the business community — in order for lawmakers not to worry it will be used as a weapon in a future political campaign, senior lawmakers said.

"We need you to want to make it a reality as much as you want to talk about it," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told business leaders.

"It will only happen if you want it bad enough," he added.

Rep. Mike McLane of Powell Butte, the top Republican in the House, said Republicans are open to a transportation package, as long as they have a say in how it's crafted.

"If we're left out, politics gets tough," McLane said.


Follow AP writer Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper

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