Gov Kate Brown of Oregon signs legislation for education funding into law

Can Bipartisan Statewide Support for Early Education Become a National Trend?

Legislation that includes what an early childhood advocacy group says is an “historic investment in early childhood” has been signed into law in Oregon, and some supporters see it as evidence of a trend taking hold across the country.

“I think the trend is that we need to start investing earlier,” says Amanda Manjarrez, director of advocacy at the Portland, Ore.-based Latino Network, which offers programs for youths and families. “Folks are realizing we can’t wait until kindergarten to make these investments.”

“The law is an historic investment in early childhood that provides exactly the kind of support that young children need.” — Children’s Institute in Oregon.
Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, signed the legislation on May 16, creating a new business tax for what is to be called the Student Success Fund. The tax will take effect in 2020 and is eventually expected to raise $1 billion per year for early childhood and K-12 education.

The law is an “historic investment in early childhood” that “provides exactly the kind of support that young children need,” says the nonprofit Children’s Institute in Oregon.

Early childhood learning will get about 20 percent of the money. Per year, that includes, according to the institute:

  • $77.5 million to add full-day slots and boost half-day to full-day slots for both Oregon Pre-Kindergarten and Preschool Promise, which is a model for publicly-funded preschools
  • $37.5 million to early intervention and early childhood special education programs, as many children diagnosed with high or moderate needs do not get services at recommended levels
  • $28.1 million to programs for infants and toddlers, such as voluntary home visiting, Relief Nurseries, which give services to vulnerable families, Early Head Start and parenting education programs
  • $12.5 million to professional and workforce development for early childhood workers, with the aim of ensuring that children being added to prekindergarten slots are served by qualified workers
  • $10 million to create a fund to support “culturally specific early learning, early childhood, and parent support programs,” with the goal of helping more children of color and dual-language learners

Before the legislation became law, a bipartisan Joint Committee On Student Success of the Oregon Legislature traveled the state holding meetings and making visits to places that included early childhood learning programs that are not as well known as programs such as Head Start, Manjarrez says.

“That kind of, oh, I see what you’re talking about,” she says, referring to lawmakers on the committee, “I think is actually important.”

So was gaining three-fifths supermajorities of Democrats in both chambers of the legislature following the November 2018 elections, Manjarrez says.

“We have these structural barriers that don’t really allow us to raise enough money to invest in anything that we want and education has really suffered for it,” she adds. “So, I think the appetite was there to really figure out how to get enough money, how to raise enough resources to make it happen. The investment ideas aren’t necessarily new; I think they’ve been bubbling up. I appreciate the comprehensive approach that the state took.”

Oregon’s financial commitment with the law is large, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Thirty-two governors have proposed additional funds for early care and education programs in their upcoming state budgets, according to the Washington, D.C.-based group.

Measured at dollars per child under age 6, the top funding proposals are:

  1. Colorado: $595.30
  2. California: $556.95
  3. New Mexico: $424.24
  4. Oregon: $402.45

Manjarrez and Megan McClelland, director of the Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University and head of the school’s Kindergarten Readiness Research Program, agree that a key part of the law is aligning early childhood programs with the K-12 system to better prepare children for kindergarten.

“I think a really good part of this law is forcing people to do it,” McClelland says. Now, there are cases of Head Start and kindergarten teachers in the same building who “don’t talk to each other.” The law, she says, will “promote better transition practices.”

McClelland also sees those efforts being replicated around the country. She says more states are creating, for example, short-term intervention programs aimed at children who are about to enter kindergarten but aren’t quite ready. More states, she says, are also putting more resources into non-academic teaching before kindergarten — “the sort of foundational building blocks that provide children the ability to then take in the academic content. So, it’s the how-you-learn skills.”

That approach is needed in Oregon, according to Manjarrez.

“Our early childhood system is very young; it’s still becoming a system,” she says. The new law “is really a first step for pulling that all together, as opposed to having a line-item list of programs to fund; we’ve started to look at it as a comprehensive system.”

The Oregon Early Childhood Coalition had argued that the need for investment was great, saying that in Oregon:

  • 30,000 eligible children lack access to publicly funded Preschool
  • Early Head Start reaches only 10 percent of eligible children
  • 47 percent of third-graders are reading on grade level

It’s possible that even though the legislation has been signed, it won’t necessarily take effect without approval from voters.

The Oregonian reported a few days after the signing that supporters and opponents of the tax agree it’s likely to end up before voters in a special election, probably at the beginning of next year.


More to explore:

Article: Children’s Institute: “What Does Passage of the Student Success Act Mean for Early Childhood?”

Article: Center for American Progress: “Governors Propose Nearly $3 Billion of Investments in Early Learning Programs”

Video: Early Learning Nation: Sara Watson Makes the Case for Business Investment for Early Learning

Video: Early Learning Nation: Megan McClelland: The Skills & Tools of Self-Regulation

Tom Kertscher

Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher was a 35-year newspaper reporter, finishing that career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Now a freelance writer, his work includes fact-checking for PolitiFact and sports reporting for the Associated Press. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. Kertscher is the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

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