Tuition equity bill receives bipartisan support, but is that enough?

by Melanie Davis
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Rep. Michael Dembrow
Richard Jones El Hispanic News Writer Salem, OR — Sometimes an encounter with reality can spin one’s viewpoint by 180 degrees. In 2003, when the first iteration of the tuition equity bill came before the Oregon senate, Frank Morse, a Republican representing the Albany district, voted against the bill. A few years later, a bit of fate pushed him to re-examine some of his values. His daughter, Kerry, who had spent a good deal of time working in China, fell in love. Problems started surfacing when Morse’s future son-in-law tried to emigrate from China to the United States. When procedural difficulties started arising, Morse soon discovered that the United States has “a lack of rational immigration law.†Faced with dozens of technical problems, Morse called upon a senate colleague to help unravel the bureaucratic entanglements. Today, Morse calls the battle with obstacles in the naturalization process “a horrible experience.†When the tuition equity bill — SB 742, which would allow college students to pay in-state tuition regardless of immigration status — came up in 2011, Morse found himself morally obligated to sponsor it. A scholar’s viewpoint At first glance, Oregon state Rep. Michael Dembrow seems the polar opposite of Morse. Morse comes from the business side of the fence; Dembrow, a Portland Democrat, comes from academia. Dembrow has taught at Portland Community College’s Cascade campus. Although he modestly lists himself as an English teacher, Dembrow is one of Oregon’s leading film experts in Oregon. When the first tuition equity bill came up in 2003, he recalls, “I was president of the PCC faculty union at the time. I was aware of the tuition equity concept.†Following the defeat of the tuition equity bill in 2003, Dembrow says this bill came up in 2005 and 2009, only to be rejected both times. At the CAUSA 2011 Latino Legislative Agenda meeting in mid-February, Dembrow related that he has seen many talented high-school graduates who could not afford a university education. When the bill received a hearing in the house in 2009, Dembrow recalls,. “We thought we could handle it administratively.†That was too optimistic. Many legal details got in the way. In the last two years, Dembrow says, “We have resolved all of those [legal] issues.†“Illegal immigration issues need to be resolved at the federal level,†he points out. Dembrow says, “We modeled our bill after California’s.†California and nine other states have passed several variations of tuition equity bills into law. In sharing credit, Dembrow noted, “CAUSA’s work on this bill has brought its supporters together.†Citing the importance of tuition equity, Dembrow stated, “At some point it has to be fixed.†Legislative procedures SB 742 faces a lengthy process at the Capitol. Morse outlined the steps. “Every bill must go through a committee before coming to the floor,†he explained. In a simplified version, a bill must go through a Senate committee first. If it passes a floor vote in the Senate, it will then go to the House of Representatives. There it will face another committee. If it wins a House vote, the bill then goes to Gov. John Kitzhaber, who will likely sign his name on it, making it a law. In the Senate, Democrats hold a 16 to 14 edge. Presumably, that should bode well for SB 742 passing. With the House split with 30 members from each party, the outcome there is a little more uncertain. The fact that Representatives Mark Johnson and Bob Jenson are the only Republican members openly supporting SB 742 suggests the House vote will be very close. What’s at stake Both Morse and Dembrow have encountered many outstanding students deterred from gaining a college education by steep tuitions. Morse recalls “a bright, talented girl — there was no way she could pay three times the [in-state] tuition.†Dembrow says he has seen “many talented high graduates that could not afford a university education. These are kids that have overcome great adversity and managed to get good grades.†“The bill promises opportunity and equity for all of Oregonians,†Dembrow says. Morse asks, “What really is in the best interest of Oregon? Keeping them [at a low economic] level or helping these youths to be the best they can be?†After considering those questions, supporting SB 742, Morse said, “became a pretty easy thing to do.†Dembrow noted that the four chief sponsors consist of one Democrat and one Republican in the House and two Republicans in the Senate. He calls these Republicans “practical and thoughtful. For them to put themselves out there is a real testament to their character.†Although Morse has not received any criticism from his fellow Republicans, he reports “Some unkind calls have come into my office.†Dembrow observes, “The immigration debate brings out the worst in us.†“We need to be sure that we don’t create a lost generation,†Dembrow warns. He sees high-tech jobs going out of state if Oregon doesn’t provide a superior education for its students. Dembrow views that possibility of not having trained young men and women to support Oregon’s economy as a tragedy and a wasted resource. On Valentine's Day, parents, students and young adults from several towns visited the offices of Oregon's 90 legislators. At each office they left homemade Valentine cards — and an occasional reminder to support the tuition equity bill. One of the recipients, Michael Dembrow, had a good selection of cards. He picked a pair from the stack and smiled for the camera. Clearly, the smile came very easily.

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Photo Richard Jones, El Hispanic News El Representante Michael Dembrow muestra algunas de las tarjetas de San Valentín buscando apoyo para equidad de matrícula que estudiantes le dieron a él y a otros legisladores.