By Becky Straus, Legislative Director
Today in front of a packed room of supporters, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law HB 2787, a law that brings access to in-state tuition to all Oregonians, regardless of immigration status. The governor’s action marked the culmination of an over ten-year-long campaign for tuition equity in Oregon. It is about time.
A Democratic majority in both chambers and the rising political influence of Latinos in the electorate contributed to this great victory, but ultimately it was the leadership of a few key legislators that cleared the path for this bill’s passage. Sen. Frank Morse (R-Albany) and Sen. David Nelson (R-Pendleton), each now retired from the legislature, departed from the prevailing view of many in their caucus, and co-sponsored the tuition equity bill in the 2011 session. Their sponsorship demonstrated to Oregonians that tuition equity is about fairness rather than partisan politics. And their public support for the bill invited their colleagues to follow so that, despite the fact that Morse and Nelson are no longer in the legislature, eight Republicans (including Nelson’s successor) helped tuition equity pass in 2013.
So this is a story about bipartisanship and the great efforts made by Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) over many years to build bridges across party and ideological lines, but it is most importantly about opportunity for Oregon youth. Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, “This is a ten year effort for young people, young people who want a chance. Today, it’s about the kids.”
Courtney is right. All Oregonians deserve fair access to the high quality and affordable educational opportunities provided by Oregon’s colleges and universities. Students who will benefit from tuition equity are, by and large, talented high-achievers with only positive contributions to return to Oregon. They grew up here, persevered against the odds to excel, graduated from local high schools, and are otherwise eligible for admission to an Oregon college or university on equal terms with their friends and classmates. A long time coming, tuition equity will modestly ensure that students who graduate from high school in Oregon will not be deprived of their dreams to pursue the educational opportunity they have earned due to their immigration status.
At a moment when the country is working on fixing the broken immigration system, HB 2787 is an example of what states can do to welcome their immigrant residents and ensure they have the same opportunities to go to school and give back as does everyone else. To date, twelve states, from Washington to Nebraska, have laws allowing students who meet specific requirements, regardless of their status, to pay in-state tuition rates at public post-secondary institutions.
With his signature today, Kitzhaber committed that Oregon, too, is a state dedicated to fairness and equal access to higher education. We applaud his action and the courageous work of Oregon youth, including organizing and advocacy from Oregon Dream Activist and the Oregon Student Association, and their legislative leaders that brought us to this day.