It may be do-or-die time for summer school programs in Oregon.
Last week, Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill sent a letter to Oregon legislative leadership, including co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means and its education subcommittee.
“If the Legislature does not provide a bill ready for the Governor’s signature on or about April 15, we will not be able to stand up summer learning opportunities in our schools and communities across Oregon this summer,” Gill wrote in the April 4 letter. “This deadline will provide just 6 weeks for local and state prep so that summer school can begin in June.”
With one day left until that deadline, the bill remained in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means with no sign of movement. The last time the bill made a significant move was nearly two months ago, on Feb. 20, when legislators moved it to Ways and Means and a recommendation to pass the bill with its amendments.
“This is still under consideration,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Beaverton, in a message to OPB late Thursday.
The message from ODE director Gill followed a similar letter sent by Gov. Tina Kotek on March 29, also urging legislative leaders to push forward the money for summer programs.
“Time is running out to hear directly from you about your commitment to fund summer programming this summer,” Kotek wrote.
“Districts need to know now if they should develop summer learning plans, tied to specific outcomes, that meet this moment for our students. Community-based organizations need time to reach out to families in underserved communities about the opportunities that are available to their children.”
After two years of summer learning programs funded by the state, there’s support for summer learning in Oregon for a third year – from local organizations all the way to the Governor’s office. But it’s the middle of April – and with state dollars for summer funding stalled in the Legislature, families and organizers have little time to pull together robust programming this summer.
“If the Legislature chooses to skip funding for this summer or delay a public commitment to summer programming for districts, CBOs, and tribes – ODE and some school districts, CBOs, and tribes will have to let experienced staff go and be forced to rebuild teams for the process during 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 had conversations with Kotek about summer programming in a “tight” budget year.
“After receiving Governor Kotek’s letter, myself and House Speaker Rayfield sat down with the governor over how best to fund summer learning programs with federal funds or grants because of our state’s tight budget cycle,” Wagner said.
“As a dad with kids who were in high school during the pandemic, I strongly believe we need to support our students who lost educational time over the past few years, which is one reason our budget framework prioritizes the state school fund with $9.9 billion and other investments.”
High stakes for local programs
Maria Weer directs Building Healthy Families, a nonprofit based in Enterprise that supports families and children in Wallowa, Union, Baker and Malheur counties. She said state funding was “essential” last year. She’s frustrated with the uncertain state of things.
“I felt that we were given the impression, after seeing the Governor’s [recommended] budget, after conversions that we’d had with our funders, that we should not only move forth and plan, but … over the course of the year, we’ve seen need for in-person youth program numbers just crazy – families want to connect, kids want to connect,” Weer said.
“To have high-quality programs, you’ve got to start planning in March.”
At the beginning of the legislative session, education advocates were pushing for a permanent investment in summer learning, a chance to create a consistent, timely funding stream instead of the annual rush to apply for grant funds, hire staff, and contact families.
At a town hall this past Tuesday for both summer and afterschool programming, more than 200 attendees from local school districts, community organizations, and state offices listened to presentations about the success of the last two years of summer programming.
Organizers encouraged attendees to share their stories with legislators to help “them understand – the research is in, summer programs are necessary and afterschool programs help protective factors for children,” said Beth Unverzagt, executive director of Oregon ASK.
At the same time, program organizers stress that these funds need to be doled out sooner rather than later.
“A late in the game vote – even if it’s favorable, you still undermine good work because now you’re dispersing funds late in the game,” said Mark Jackson, executive director and co-founder of REAP, a Portland-based nonprofit that hosts leadership and other programs for youth.
“That impacts planning, staffing, all those sorts of things, and it becomes a mad dash to the finish line … you have to set up the community for success.”
In 2021, the state spent $200 million on programs serving students K-12. In 2022, that dipped slightly to $150 million in state funds for school districts and community organizations, with thousands of students served.
In both years, legislation for that funding was signed by April 15, according to the Oregon Department of Education. This year, those same 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 provided six weeks of summer programs for students, teaching skills such as social-emotional learning and leadership. With state funding, they’ve been able to serve more students.
Jackson said funding is needed to support students who are still impacted by COVID-19 and to help bridge the gap in learning between school years.
“We understand that whenever there is that gap in learning, there’s a loss there in terms of instructional time,” Jackson said. “We have kids that are really trying to recover – this is a whole new profile of students.”
Weer in Enterprise is concerned about children who may not have programming, but also parents who don’t have anywhere to send their children.
“I worry about working parents who thought they had these great opportunities and they had mapped out child care for their kids this summer,” Weer said. “That makes me worry about the economics of our community – because if you can’t find child care for your kids, you can’t work.”
In a statement to OPB, Foundations for a Better Oregon’s Louis Wheatley said it’s critical that legislators come to a solution about supporting summer learning this year.
“Families, community-based organizations, and Tribes all need certainty about our state’s commitment to summer learning this year and into the future. Delaying this year’s investment puts immense pressure on these programs as they try to prepare engaging, rigorous, and joyful experiences for youth,” Wheatley wrote.
“Forgoing the investment altogether would mean turning our back on community-based and culturally specific learning as a critical piece of Oregon’s public education strategy.”
It’s unclear why Senate Bill 531 has stalled, but the movement of legislation has slowed down in the last week. Some are watching for the state’s next revenue forecast on May 17 for a better idea of how much money the state will have to dole out.
Weer said she’s heard legislators are concerned about whether the money is really being used to serve marginalized communities – a worry she and other organizers say is misplaced.
“Not only are many of these organizations serving minority populations or high-poverty populations … This funding is our option and these programs that are in our own backyard are the options for our kids,” Weer said. She points out that she thought about attending one of the Ways and Means roadshows to hear from Oregonians across the state, but she’d have to drive three to six hours just to get there.
“To me, that just kind of illustrates how far our kids are from these services and how these funds really are going to kids that are not having equal opportunity.”
Lower budget ask, more financial responsibility on school districts in 2023
Senate Bill 531 does not outline any specific funding amounts, but Gov. Tina Kotek’s budget document outlines millions of dollars focused on summer learning and enrichment for Oregonians in all grades.
There is $30 million allotted for summer programs hosted by community-based organizations and Oregon’s tribes for all grades. It also includes $20 million of $120 million in early literacy funding dedicated to “literacy-focused summer programming” for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with districts required to provide a 50% local match.
Gill’s April 4 letter noted that these funds are much less than those provided in the last two years.
“This investment is only a 1/3 of what Oregon invested last summer, but we know it can make a difference for our children,” Gill wrote.
Some legislators expect school districts to use what’s left of federal COVID relief dollars for summer programming.
Vanessa Davalos, who administers summer programs in the Beaverton School District, had to prepare a budget proposal for summer months ago. This year, they plan to serve over 7,000 students K-12, focusing on historically underserved students through programs focused on kindergarteners, middle schoolers, and high school students, among other groups.
Last summer, the district served about 8,000 students and received $8 million in state funds.
“We had a little more flexibility,” Davalos said. The district could offer child care, or bring in outside vendors to provide meals or other activities like music. It could offer a bonus to retain teaching staff over the summer.
This summer, administrators like Davalos are thinking more strategically, using the resources and staff the district already has.
“As we move forward … what do we truly need, we’re looking at what is truly purposeful for our kids.”
Though state funding would allow more flexibility and support for the district’s program, Davalos said the district will continue to follow its mission to provide “equitable summer programs.”
Portland Public Schools plans to serve 5,000 students through its Summer Safety and Enrichment Programming, using $4 million in federal emergency relief funds to do so. But like Beaverton, Portland school officials say state funds would help the district reach more students.
“Our hope is that more state funding will be available so that additional partners and programs can be funded to serve more students and families,” said PPS Senior Director of Racial Equity and Social Justice Dani Ledezma in a statement to OPB.
There will likely be more clarity on the state’s ability to fund summer learning and other programs after the state’s next revenue forecast on May 17.
That’s less than a month before summer break begins.