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Kitzhaber's $18.6 billion budget proposal focuses on early-childhood education

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SALEM, Oregon — Gov. John Kitzhaber on Monday proposed a budget that would increase funding for education with a focus on children before they reach third grade.

The Democratic governor, elected last month to a fourth term, unveiled his $18.6 billion two-year state budget proposal in a news conference at the Capitol. His spending plan would be an increase of about 11 percent over the current budget thanks to growing tax collections from the improving economy.

"This budget is our earnest effort to address the disparities that exist in Oregon," Kitzhaber said.

Kitzhaber singled out programs that would help lower-income Oregonians. He wants to offer more families day care subsidies and create tax credits to ensure low-wage workers don't abruptly lose money as their income rises and they no-longer qualify for public assistance programs.

He proposed focusing much of the additional education spending on early-childhood education, saying Oregon should ensure that 95 percent of third-graders are proficient at reading within five years, up from 68 percent. Kitzhaber has advocated for a focus on third-grade reading during previous legislative sessions and his re-election campaign, saying students are less likely to drop out during high school if they have solid reading skills.

Kitzhaber celebrated his education proposal as "a historic investment in our public schools," but his proposed $6.9 billion for primary and secondary schools disappointed the powerful Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

The governor's budget proposal would not provide enough money for schools to reduce class sizes, invest in arts in physical education or provide training for teachers, said Hanna Vaandering, president of the OEA.

"We're not investing in putting class size at a level at which students can really be successful," Vaandering said. "That needs to be addressed."

Kitzhaber acknowledged that his budget proposal shortchanged higher education, saying he hopes at least $50 million more can be found for universities. The presidents of all seven public universities released a joint statement saying

"Oregon needs to rebuild a strong middle class with a workforce that is trained for today's economy," their statement said. "This isn't free."

Kitzhaber's budget did not propose a tax increase, but he said he still plans to push for an overhaul of the tax code that would be sent to voters and could lead to an overall increase in state revenue. He said a sales tax is not politically viable.

Lawmakers are free to change or ignore Kitzhaber's recommendations. Senate President Peter Courtney said he's asked the Legislature's chief budget writers to release their own budget proposal by mid-January.

The final budget must be approved by the Legislature and signed by Kitzhaber before July 1.

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