Oregon education officials beg the legislature: Fund summer programs now

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It may be time for summer school programs in Oregon.

Last week, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill sent a letter to the Oregon legislative leadership, including the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee and its Education Subcommittee.

“If the legislature does not present a bill ready for the governor’s signature on or about April 15, we will not be able to provide summer learning opportunities in our schools and communities across Oregon this summer,” Gill wrote in the April 4 letter. “This deadline will provide only 6 weeks of local and state preparation so summer school can begin in June.”

With one day left until this deadline, The bill remained in the Joint Ways and Means Committee With no sign of movement. The last time the bill took a significant step was nearly two months ago, on February 20, when lawmakers took it to Ways and Means and a recommendation to pass the bill with its amendments.

“This is still under consideration,” Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Beaverton, said in a letter to the OPB late Thursday.

It'S The Middle Of April, And With State Funding Stalled For Summer In The Legislature, Families And Organizers Have Little Time To Put Together Solid Programming This Summer.  In This File Photo From 2021, Students From The Portland Area Paint Stock Cabinets In A Summer Program.

It’s the middle of April, and with state funding stalled for summer in the legislature, families and organizers have little time to put together solid programming this summer. In this file photo from 2021, students from the Portland area paint stock cabinets in a summer program.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

The letter from the ODE director follows a similar letter sent by Gov. Tina Kotick on March 29, which also urged legislative leaders to push money for summer programs.

“We are running out of time to hear from you directly about your commitment to funding summer programs this summer,” Kotick wrote.

“School districts now need to know whether they should develop summer learning plans, linked to specific outcomes, that meet this moment for our students. Community organizations need time to reach out to families in disadvantaged communities about opportunities for their children.”

After two years of state-funded summer learning programs, there’s support for Year Three Oregon Summer Learning—from local organizations all the way to the governor’s office. But it’s mid-April—and with state funding for the summer stalled in the legislature, families and organizers simply don’t have time to put together solid programming this summer.

“If the Legislature chooses to skip funding for this summer or delay public commitment to summer programs for counties, community organizations, and tribes — the ODE and some school districts, community organizations, and tribes will have to let experienced staff go and force them to rebuild teams for operation through the summer of 2024,” Gill wrote in his letter.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said in a statement to OPB on Friday that he has held talks with Kotek about summer programming in a “tight” budget year.

“After receiving Governor Kotick’s letter, Speaker Rayfield and I sat down with the governor about how best to fund summer learning programs with federal money or grants due to our state’s tight budget cycle,” Wagner said.

“As a parent with children who were in high school during the pandemic, I strongly believe we need to support our students who have lost educational time over the past few years, which is one reason our budget framework prioritizes the Public Schools Fund with $9.9 billion and other investments.”

Maria Weir runs Building Healthy Families, a nonprofit organization based in Enterprise that supports families and children in Wallowa, Union, Baker, and Malheur counties. She said government funding was “essential” last year. She is frustrated with the uncertain state of things.

“I felt like we got the impression after seeing the ruler [recommended] The budget, after the transfers we’ve had with our funders, that we should not only go ahead and plan, but … over the course of the year, we’ve seen the need for in-person youth program numbers go insane — families want to go crazy,” Ware said.

“To get high-quality programs, you need to start planning in March.”

At the start of the legislative session, education advocates were pushing for a permanent investment in summer learning, the chance to create a consistent and timely funding stream rather than the annual rush to apply for grant money, hire staff, and contact families.

At the town hall this past Tuesday for both summer and after-school programming, more than 200 participants from local school districts, community organizations, and state offices heard presentations about the success of the past two years of summer programming.

Organizers encouraged attendees to share their stories with lawmakers to help them understand — research is underway, summer programs are essential and after-school programs help protect kids, said Beth Onversajt, executive director of Oregon ASK.

At the same time, program organizers stress that this money needs to be disbursed sooner rather than later.

said Mark Jackson, CEO and co-founder of REAP, a Portland-based nonprofit that hosts leadership and other programs for youth.

“It affects planning and staffing and all those kinds of things, and it becomes a crazy rush to the finish line… You have to set up the community for success.”

In 2021, the state has passed $200 million In programs that serve K-12 students. In 2022, that drops slightly to $150 million in state money for school districts and community organizations, with thousands of students served.

In both years, the legislation for this funding was signed into law by April 15, according to the Oregon Department of Education. This year, those school districts and community organizations may not have any of that funding — or at least, not by the same deadline as previous years.

Last year, REAP offered six weeks of summer programs to students, teaching skills such as social-emotional learning and leadership. Thanks to government funding, they have been able to serve more students.

Jackson said the funding is needed to support students who are still affected by COVID-19 and to help bridge the gap in learning between school years.

“We understand that whenever there is a gap in learning, there is a loss in terms of teaching time,” said Jackson. “We have kids who are really trying to recover — this is a whole new profile for students.”

Weer in Enterprise cares for children who may not have programs, but also parents who don’t have a place to send their children.

“I worry about working parents who thought they had these great opportunities and mapped out childcare for their kids this summer,” Ware said. “It makes me worry about the economics of our society — because if you can’t find childcare for your kids, you can’t work.”

In a statement to the OPB, Louis Wheatley of Better Oregon said it’s critical that lawmakers come up with a solution on subsidizing summer learning this year.

Families, community organizations, and tribes need certainty about our state’s commitment to summer learning this year and in the future. Delaying investment this year, Wheatley writes, puts enormous pressure on these programs as they try to create experiences that are engaging, rigorous, and fun for young people.

“Disinvesting completely means turning our backs on community- and cultural-based learning as an important part of Oregon’s public education strategy.”

It’s unclear why Senate Bill 531 stalled, but the movement on legislation has slowed in the past week. Some are watching the state’s upcoming revenue projections on May 17 to get a better idea of ​​how much money the state will have to fork out.

Weir said she’s heard lawmakers worry about whether the money is really being used to serve marginalized communities — a concern she and other regulators say is misplaced.

“It’s not just that many of these organizations serve minorities or populations that are extremely poor… This funding is our choice and these programs in our backyard are the options available to our children,” Ware said. She notes that she considered attending one of the Ways and Means promotions to hear from Oregonians across the state, but had to drive three to six hours just to get there.

“To me, it kind of shows how far our kids are from these services and how that money really goes to kids who don’t have equal opportunities.”

Senate Bill 531 does not set any specific funding amounts, but Gov. Tina Kotick does budget document Sets millions of dollars focused on summer learning and enrichment for Oregonians in all grades.

There is $30 million earmarked for summer programs hosted by community organizations and Oregon tribes for all grades. It also includes $20 million of the $120 million in early literacy funding earmarked for “literacy-focused summer programs” for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with districts required to provide a 50% local match.

Gill’s April 4 letter indicated that this money is far less than that provided in the previous two years.

“This investment is only a third of what Oregon invested last summer, but we know it can make a difference for our kids,” Gill wrote.

Some lawmakers expect school districts to use the remaining federal COVID relief dollars for summer programs.

Vanessa Davalos, who runs summer programs in the Beaverton School District, had to prepare a budget proposal for the past summer months. This year, they plan to serve more than 7,000 K-12 students, focusing on historically disadvantaged students with programs focused on kindergarten, middle school students, and high school students, among other groups.

This past summer, the district served about 8,000 students and received $8 million in state money.

“We had a little bit more flexibility,” Davalos said. The district can offer child care, or bring in outside vendors to provide meals or other activities such as music. Can offer a faculty retention bonus over the summer.

This summer, officials like Davalos are thinking more strategically, using resources and personnel already in the area.

“As we move forward…what do we really need, we look at what is really meaningful for our children.”

Although state funding will allow for more flexibility and support for the district’s program, Davalos said the district will continue to pursue its mission to provide “fair summer programming.”

Portland Public Schools plans to serve 5,000 students through the Summer Safety and Enrichment Program, using $4 million in federal emergency relief funds to do so. But like Beaverton, Portland school officials say state money will help the district reach more students.

“We hope that more government funding becomes available so that additional partners and programs can be funded to serve more students and families,” said Danny Ledezma, PPS Senior Director for Racial Equity and Social Justice in a statement to the OPB.

There will likely be more clarity about the state’s ability to fund summer learning and other programs after the state’s upcoming revenue projections on May 17.

This is less than a month before the start of the summer holidays.