In each of the last few years, supporters of afterschool and summer learning programs have seen a familiar pattern: they show up in Salem to push for money; legislators listen and eventually agree to put money into summer programs. It leaves school and community leaders grateful for the money but scrambling to put classes and activities together before school lets out in June.
But this year, advocates are hoping a bill in the Oregon Senate will interrupt this annual pattern.
During a public hearing for the bill last week, representatives from community organizations and school districts took turns at the podium recounting stories of how summer programs helped children across the state.
Beyond academic support like helping students recover credits or catch up on reading, representatives shared examples of how summer programs taught children about water sports or gardening.
One student said the local Boys and Girls Club chapter cheered them up when they felt sad.
Yadira Juarez, program director for the Salem Keizer Coalition for Equality, talked about how robotics and parenting courses made students and their families feel.
“The most beautiful thing about the summer program is that families feel included, safe in a space where their language, customs, cultures, and traditions are respected,” Juarez said.
Over and over, speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing asked the legislature to invest in another summer. They also asked for consistent, predictable funding that could be awarded earlier in the year, in order to give program leaders enough time to hire staff and plan.
If Senate Bill 531 passes, chief sponsor and Senate education committee chair Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said funding this year — and in the future — would change how schools roll out summer programs.
“There was not the kind of certainty that would allow for real planning, and that we really need to keep this going,” Dembrow said. “It’s really important that we find stable, permanent funding for it — that’s the goal of Senate Bill 531.”
Recent state and federal funding for summer programs have created a new structure — and new expectations — in Oregon, with recently expanded educational and enriching activities that many children were unable to access in the past. With students returning to school from the pandemic, increased financial support for summer programming from the state and federal COVID-19 relief funds have provided schools with money to catch students up.
As schools and community organizations gear up for a third year of expanded summer programming, they’re asking the legislature for more consistent support and funding to operationalize this new system.
The text of Senate Bill 531 as it was introduced this session does not specify an amount of money for summer programs in 2023.
It only directs the legislature to appropriate money from the General Fund to the Oregon Department of Education for “summer and after-school programs,” with a focus on serving underrepresented populations and those from rural areas.
Last year, the legislature appropriated $150 million for summer learning grants, with $100 million going to school districts and charter schools. The other $50 million went to community-based organizations through the Oregon Association of Education Service Districts.
Over 94,000 students were served through academic enrichment in the summer of 2022, according to Oregon Department of Education data. A report from the afterschool advocacy organization OregonASK found community organizations served more than 239,000 children.
In 2021, Oregon leaders dedicated $325 million in state and federal funding to help students, including $162 million to help K-12 students, plus $40 million for community organizations.
For families, these programs removed a financial barrier to participating in summer programming. For schools and community organizations, the funding made the programs possible or helped expand capacity.
In written testimony submitted to the Senate education committee, Gervais School District student services director Creighton Helms described how the small Willamette Valley district used grant funds to host afterschool programs that more than 70% of elementary students attended.
“When programs are offered, our students will participate,” Helms wrote above photos of students playing instruments and in front of a garden. “Without your funding in the future, most of these students would be at home during the time these pictures would otherwise be taken, babysat by a tablet or cell phone, passing the time until their next school day began.”
“There’s a lot of bipartisan support for this,” Dembrow said.
“Summer programs are really instrumental if we’re going to focus on closing the equity gap, and that includes the gap between rural and urban.”
In a statement shared with OPB, officials with the Oregon Department of Education expressed support for summer and afterschool programming but acknowledged that it’s up to legislators.
“The Oregon Department of Education recognizes the importance of summer and afterschool programming and the 2023 Legislative Session will ultimately determine the future viability and funding for additional learning time,” ODE said.
Summer program providers say that in 2021 and 2022 funds were appropriated so late that it made it difficult to plan summer programs, hire staff and get the word out to families.
“We know it’s not possible to pull together comprehensive and supportive programs when they only receive the funds in June,” said FACT Oregon Executive Director Christy Reese, who noted that some families of students with disabilities were not aware of programs. She also heard from families who said the programming was not adequate.
“One family shared with us that their kids tried to participate, and instead they were put in a corner to do puzzles all by themselves,” Reese shared.
Last year, expensive insurance requirements also made it financially difficult for some small organizations to run programs.
Dembrow is hoping for an early appropriation of summer funds, but he said it won’t be easy in a “difficult budget year.”
The Director of Public Affairs for Foundations for a Better Oregon, Amanda Manjarrez, said she was grateful for the state’s investment in summer programming. But during the recent public hearing, she said that crafting a summer learning bill requires collaboration between organizations and the legislature.
“The last-minute nature of the  proposal led to implementation challenges that have yet to be addressed or even referenced in this bill,” Manjarrez said. “So it’s starting to feel a little like Groundhog Day.”
Representing a group of 21 organizations called Oregon Partners for Education Justice, Manjarrez submitted testimony asking the education committee to amend the bill to guarantee funding for community programs and flexibility around how they spend the funds.
The bill is being amended, Dembrow said, to make oversight and requirements clearer. He said the committee will vote on the bill later this week or early next week, before sending it to the Ways and Means Committee, “where we find the dollars.”
Finding the dollars may be difficult. Dembrow will be watching next month’s revenue forecast to find out more about how things stand financially. If it passes, Dembrow said this bill will help operationalize summer funding for years to come.
“This summer may be difficult just ... depending on when the appropriation gets solidified, but it will have us on solid ground for planning for every summer thereafter, and that’s the goal.”