Oregon’s 197 school districts will have record funding this year to improve literacy and to pay for school operations.
Gov. Tina Kotek on Wednesday signed into law seven new education initiatives, including the largest state school fund budget ever allocated, $140 million to improve student reading and writing and a host of other bills aimed at growing the teacher workforce, improving access to child care and enhancing student equity.
Kotek signed the bills flanked by teachers, school staff, politicians and education advocates from across the state.
She was also joined by the new director of the Oregon Department of Education, Charlene Williams, as well as Williams’ predecessor Colt Gill. Several lawmakers spoke at the signing, including the chairs of the Senate and House education committees, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville.
Dembrow applauded lawmakers for getting key education legislation passed after being stalled for six-weeks during the Republican-led Senate walkout over bills on gun control, abortion rights and gender-affirming care.
In an interview with the Capital Chronicle, Dembrow said it was an unsettling time.
“The walkout definitely brought us to the brink. Had it not been resolved exactly when it was resolved, I think it would have had great consequences,” he said. “If you’d asked me a month before the end of the session, I could not have said any of these bills would pass given what we were up against.”
The bills signed include Senate Bill 283, which was largely the work of Dembrow. He met with teachers, school staff, educator unions, associations and leaders at the state’s colleges of education and state education agencies to try and understand and tackle Oregon’s pervasive teacher shortages. Dembrow said these conversations influenced the key components of the bill, which include incentives for teacher retention, a process for making substitute licensure easier for retired teachers and extending greater benefits to substitute teachers. Demand is greatest for special education teachers and support staff, so the bill also creates a group that will study offering higher pay to special education teachers and provisions to make hiring easier. Dembrow was not able to pass a 20% pay increase for special education teachers over general educators that was originally in the bill.
He said the state’s educator workforce shortages were becoming acute pre-COVID and that the pandemic worsened them.
A 2022 statewide Educator Equity Report found that more than 60% of first-year teachers in Oregon did not return to their positions in 2021. Another Dembrow-led proposal, Senate Bill 279, was signed by Kotek on June 16, allowing Oregon to serve on the steering committee for an interstate compact that will allow teachers licensed in other states to teach in Oregon and vice versa. The law was signed just in time for Oregon to be one of 10 states that will create the rules and standards for interstate licensure.
“For kids to be successful they need good teachers, good support workers, they need educators who want to be there. I think that these bills will help,” Dembrow told the Capital Chronicle.
The Early Literacy Success Initiative, which Kotek championed, will send money to school districts and community groups for new elementary reading curriculum, reading tutors and after school reading programs, and to train teachers in reading instruction based on a large body of cognitive and neuroscience showing how the brain learns to read.
The law allocates nearly $150 million for that for the next two years.
The initiative, House Bill 3198, was developed to address low reading proficiency among Oregon students during the past several decades as measured by state and federal standardized test scores. The Capital Chronicle determined that Oregon has spent more than $250 million in the past 25 years to try and improve reading instruction in schools. But that money has failed to help more than a generation of students. Over the last 25 years, nearly two in five Oregon fourth graders and one in five eighth graders have scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card. That means they struggle to read and understand simple words.
Kotek said the initiative is the first of more investments that will need to be made in the years ahead.
“This effort will take more than one bill, more than one budget line, or one session to see all the progress,” she said. “This funding is the first step of a broader strategy to improve how we support our kids, and how they learn to read and write.”
Last year legislators approved a Department of Early Learning and Care to try and boost pre-K education opportunities and child care access across the state. House Bill 3005 gives the department resources to develop the infrastructure needed to support those goals, including $50 million in grants for child care spaces and technical assistance from the state.
“We need more child care supply, and we have providers who are ready to do it, but they need some help from us to make those upgrades and expand that capacity to make it happen around the state,” Kotek said
Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders
House Bill 3144 directs $2 million toward creating a student success plan for the state’s more than 12,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. Such plans for Black, Latino and American Indian and Native Alaskan students have helped provide professional development for teachers to meet the needs of students of different ethnic backgrounds, to develop strategies for diversifying the teacher workforce and to provide extra college and career readiness support.
Adarino Pete and Kapiolani Micky, both from Micronesia and living in Salem, attended the bill signing ceremony and said they hope the new student success plan can benefit their 15 year old son, who attends South High School.
“This will provide assistance that will make school easier on him,” Micky said.
Civil rights and ethnic studies
Under House Bill 2281, all districts will need to have a civil rights coordinator on staff to ensure state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination are followed and enforced, and to investigate allegations of discrimination in Oregon schools.
Another new law that stems from Senate Bill 1050 directs the education department to provide training and professional development for teachers ahead of new academic standards and instruction on the Holocaust, genocide and ethnic studies. Ethnic study standards adopted in 2017 will apply to students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and go into effect in 2025. They will apply to the study of Native Americans and people of African, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino Chicano and Middle Eastern descent.
Work to be done
Kotek said she was surprised and disappointed that Senate Bill 1045, which would have given the state education department more regulatory authority over districts, did not pass.
“To be very honest, there was a lot going on. That does not change my commitment to greater accountability,” she said, adding that she’ll work with Williams, the new education director, and the education department to push for legislation in the next session to allow the department to enforce standards and intervene when schools don’t improve.
Kotek said she also hopes to direct more resources to student mental and behavioral health during the next session.
Dembrow said he does not believe the walkout and the six weeks legislators lost to do the work of lawmaking had an impact on the state’s ability to pass key education bills.
“These bills are big accomplishments,” he said. “They are not the be all, end all. We have a lot more work to do.”
Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.