2021 Legislative Session Lays Foundations for an Inclusive and Equitable Public Education System

State lawmakers collaborated with the Oregon Partners for Education Justice to strengthen the Student Success Act and pass equity-driven policy for children.

The dome of the Oregon State Capitol.
The dome of the Oregon State Capitol.

Just six months ago, a newly formed coalition known as the Oregon Partners for Education Justice (OPEJ) released its first-ever legislative advocacy agenda. This community-driven agenda, which was crafted in the midst of a COVID-19 surge and in solidarity with the movement for racial justice, charted Oregon’s next steps toward an inclusive, equitable, and just public education system during and beyond the pandemic.

Six months later, Oregon’s 2021 Legislative Session has now officially adjourned. Through the tireless work of many, and a virtual session that invited more community voices to the table, our state successfully passed new policies and investments aligned with the OPEJ agenda that are already making a difference in the lives of children and families. Though the work is far from over, this session set a foundation to build from and move toward a public education system that works for all—especially Black children, Indigenous children, children of color, children navigating poverty, children in rural communities, and far too many more who are underserved by the system as it stands. 

Foundations for a Better Oregon (FBO) is heartened by the important progress our state made for Oregon’s children during session. This momentum was only possible thanks to our many community partners across Oregon, who brought their wisdom, expertise, and power; our partners in philanthropy; our partners in the Governor’s Office and the Oregon Department of Education; and of course our tireless partners in the Oregon Legislature. Now, we stand ready to engage in the hard work of implementing these policies to ensure our state keeps the promises it has made to Oregon’s children.  

24 community-based organizations, culturally specific service providers, and education advocates championed the Oregon Partners for Education Justice 2021 Legislative Agenda.
24 community-based organizations, culturally specific service providers, and education advocates championed the Oregon Partners for Education Justice 2021 Legislative Agenda.

Lifting Up Community Solutions in a Shared Commitment to Equity

To advance equity in public education, impacted communities must be meaningfully engaged throughout the policymaking process. FBO was honored to advocate this session in coalition with OPEJ, a cross-cultural network of over two dozen community-based organizations, culturally specific service providers, and education advocates who are championing a racially just and community-centered public education system for Oregon.

OPEJ and its 2021 legislative agenda also stood in solidarity with the Reimagine Oregon Project and Oregon’s Early Childhood Coalition. Collective organizing across communities is critical to addressing the longstanding and complex educational challenges we face. It also means uplifting the leadership of our coalition partners and the communities they represent. The collaboration among community-driven coalitions amplified a shared message to state legislators about the critical need to invest equitably and coherently from early learning to higher education to advance racial justice in Oregon.

And with many newly elected lawmakers joining the Oregon House and Senate, the 2021 session was a unique opportunity to grow new legislative champions while strengthening long-standing allies for educational equity and racial justice. Before session began, OPEJ member organizations forged new and deeper relationships with state legislators at FBO’s 2021 Legislative Summit, laying the groundwork to partner on shared priorities.

Throughout the session, OPEJ member organizations collaborated directly with state legislators and their offices to shape and improve bills. One silver lining of a virtual legislative session was greater access and opportunity for communities across the state to engage in the policymaking process. Partners spent countless hours tracking bills, meeting with policymakers, wordsmithing legislation, submitting letters, testifying at public hearings, and creating space for community voice, leading lawmakers to note the growing influence of community-based and culturally specific advocates on statewide education policy. 

The above graphic shows the status of bills championed by the Oregon Partners for Education Justice, as of June 30, 2021. Gov. Kate Brown must sign or veto bills within one month of the end of legislative session.
The above graphic shows the status of bills championed by the Oregon Partners for Education Justice, as of June 30, 2021. Gov. Kate Brown must sign or veto bills within one month of the end of legislative session.

Building on the Student Success Act as a Foundation for Equity

Most critically, this session saw the Legislature reaffirm its commitment to Oregon's landmark equity investment in education. Two years ago, lawmakers passed the Student Success Act (SSA), a historic $2 billion biennial boost in education funding that is dedicated to addressing racial disparities and other inequities in early childhood and K-12 education. Half of all SSA funds are channeled to the Student Investment Account (SIA), the largest equity-driven investment in Oregon’s education budget. To close disparities and improve academic and mental health outcomes, the SIA requires school districts to engage their communities and collaborate with students and families to design targeted investments that support historically underserved students.

The COVID-19 crisis put the SSA at risk only months after it went into effect. Just as school districts were planning their new equity investments with their local communities, the 2020 economic recession sharply reduced expected revenue from the corporate activity tax (CAT) that funds the SSA. Then, when the Legislature reconvened last summer to rebalance the state budget, we were dismayed to see lawmakers cut SIA funding even further—down to nearly one third of its original funding level—at a time when students and families who are impacted by systemic racism and inequity were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and school building closures.

To put our education system back on the right track, OPEJ successfully advocated in 2021 to preserve and strengthen the SSA, solidifying a critical foundation that Oregon can build on to create a more inclusive, equitable and racially just education system. We were thrilled to see the Legislature fully fund the SSA at approximately $1.8 billion during the 2021-23 biennium, including expanded funding for the SIA at $892.3 million. Keeping the SSA’s promise is the first step to moving Oregon toward stable and adequate school funding through equitable, targeted, and accountable investment strategies and mechanisms.

The Legislature also fully funded or expanded other key equity initiatives within the SSA, including Oregon’s existing statewide equity plans—the Black/African American Student Success Plan, Latino/a/x and Indigenous Student Success Plan, the American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success Plan, and English Language Learner Success Plan—as well as the new LGBTQ2SIA+ Student Success Plan that was developed and championed by the Oregon Department of Education. Together, these plans will collectively receive over $25 million during the next biennium.

With the SSA set at approximately $1.8 billion, the State School Fund at $9.3 billion ($300 million above current service levels), and federal stimulus from the American Rescue Plan, Oregon children and families will see a record-setting investment in education. In addition, Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leadership fast-tracked a historic $250 million summer learning and child care package that is already helping children heal after an intensely disruptive year. This investment will help children accelerate their learning in fun and fulfilling environments, and includes $40 million for community-based learning, enrichment, and recreation programs for children disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Coherent and equitable investment in early childhood is equally critical to children’s long-term success and well-being. At a time when only 30% of eligible children and families have access to publicly funded early childhood programs, legislators opened the door to early learning for an additional 4,000 children. During the next biennium, Oregon’s Early Learning Division will receive $76 million more than current service levels via the Student Success Act. Although this falls below the $109 million increase proposed by Gov. Brown, the Legislature is signaling a real commitment to expanding access to culturally relevant early learning opportunities. In particular, the Early Childhood Equity Collaborative successfully secured a $3 million increase for the SSA’s Early Childhood Equity Fund, which will now invest nearly $24 million over the next two years to bring more culturally specific early learning programs and providers into Oregon’s early learning system.

Holding Oregon’s Public Education System Accountable to All Students 

This session, the Legislature passed a series of bills that will support every student’s sense of belonging in our schools and our state. These policies and investments were prioritized by students and community leaders, and successfully shepherded through the legislative process by champions like House Education Committee Chair Teresa Alonso Leon, Senate Education Committee Chair Michael Dembrow, House Early Childhood Committee Chair Karin Power, Oregon Department of Education (ODE) Director Colt Gill, and the ODE legislative affairs team.

For instance, House Bill 2052, which was spearheaded by Tribal leaders in Oregon, requires school districts to allow students to wear Tribal regalia at school events such as graduation ceremonies. House Bill 2056 honors Oregon’s linguistic diversity by allowing students to fulfill language arts requirements in languages other than English or through English Language Learner coursework. And House Bill 2055 creates a Tribal Early Learning Hub, which will honor Tribal sovereignty and ensure Tribal and Native communities have access to high quality and culturally specific early learning opportunities across Oregon. These equity-centered bills were developed by ODE and shaped by OPEJ member organizations like NAYA and APANO.

To disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, which begins in early childhood, the Legislature also passed Senate Bill 236, a top priority for the Reimagine Oregon Project and Oregon’s Early Childhood Coalition. This bill commissions a study on the use of exclusionary discipline in early childhood programs, and will ban publicly funded and licensed early learning and child care providers from suspending or expelling children, a discriminatory practice that disproportionately harms Black children, children with disabilities, and many more. To prepare our system before the ban goes into effect in 2026, House Bill 2166 will fund a new $5.8 million training program for providers to prevent suspension and expulsion in early childhood education and care programs. 

The Legislature is also supporting Oregon educators to better support students. The state budget expands funding for the Educator Advancement Council (EAC), allocating over $50 million to help recruit, retain, and support a diverse educator workforce. These investments in the EAC include new funds to develop an anti-racism initiative for educators and create an Indigenous and Tribal Educator Institute.

In addition, the Legislature passed House Bill 2001 to protect Oregon’s diversifying educator workforce and its benefits for all students—especially those who are underserved by our schools. This bill, led by OPEJ member Stand for Children, requires school districts to recognize teachers’ cultural and linguistic diversity and expertise as factors for retention in the event of layoffs.

Given how the past year disrupted the lives of all children and disproportionately impacted historically underserved children, we’re encouraged that the Legislature took meaningful steps to equitably support every student’s health and well-being. House Bill 2060 strengthens the SSA’s Student Investment Account (SIA) by directing Oregon’s State Board of Education to develop equitable mental and behavioral health targets for school districts’ SIA investments. The Legislature also passed House Bill 2166, directing an inclusive advisory group to develop educational content standards for social and emotional learning (SEL) in K-12 schools. These statewide targets and standards will reinforce a shared vision for student well-being, guiding school districts to provide culturally responsive and trauma-informed services that contribute to safe and supportive school environments.

Finally, FBO and OPEJ look forward to supporting an inclusive review of Oregon’s high school diploma requirements. At the outset of session, there was a strong push in the Legislature to permanently repeal Essential Skills proficiency requirements without developing an alternative that holds our education system accountable to students. To move forward instead of backwards, we called for a comprehensive review of Oregon’s graduation and proficiency requirements, including Essential Skills, to ensure they are rigorous, relevant, equitable, and truly reflect what every student needs to thrive in the 21st century. Senate Bill 744 delivers this review, and only temporarily pauses Essential Skills requirements through 2024 instead of eliminating them entirely. FACT Oregon, an OPEJ member, was instrumental in shaping this legislation, which will strengthen Oregon’s diploma options and support every student to achieve their ambitions and dreams. 

Lessons Learned: Reinforcing Oregon’s Commitment to Equity

Even as we celebrate the Legislature’s recommitment to the SSA, FBO is more committed than ever to ensuring that Oregon moves toward a more coherent and equitable system of funding across the education continuum: early learning, K-12, and post-secondary. As a state, we need to challenge the persistent narrative that pressures legislators, school districts, educators, and communities to make a false choice between adequately funding schools and making equitable investment decisions. Radically accelerating progress for children depends on dispelling that false choice.

Oregon can’t simply rely on secondary or supplemental investments to advance equity in education and justice for children. In a truly equitable education system, Oregon would invest each and every public dollar in an effective, targeted, community-informed, and accountable way—including the State School Fund, our state’s single largest budget item. We’re grateful that Gov. Brown has begun convening community leaders, state legislators, and education stakeholders to examine how every education spending decision, at every level, can ensure every student has what they need to learn, grow, and thrive.

We also can’t overlook the strong, community-centered policies and investments that legislators didn’t see through. Senate Bill 328, which would have collected and published transparent data on K-12 suspension and expulsion to better inform students and families about exclusionary discipline in their schools, was passed by the Senate Education Committee but denied funding in the final state budget. Similarly, House Bill 2368, which would have created a culturally responsive and trauma-informed mental health pilot program in Oregon schools, was supported by the House Education Committee but ultimately did not receive funding.

The Legislature also failed to fund Senate Bill 227, which would have created critical professional development opportunities to help educators implement new Ethnic Studies standards in Oregon’s classroom. Even though Oregon policymakers were the first in the nation to pass landmark bipartisan Ethnic Studies legislation, our state can’t fulfill its commitment to providing inclusive curricula and learning environments without investing in educators and schools to meaningfully implement Ethnic Studies. This couldn’t be more important when educators are facing a fierce backlash against discussing race and racism—past and present—with students in the classroom. Moving forward, we must recommit Oregon’s leaders to sustainably funding and implementing the racial justice policies and equity investments they pass.

Good process is critical to good policy, and deepening Oregon’s commitment to equity will depend on our state’s commitment to inclusive and participatory decision-making. We hope the Legislature preserves some of the COVID-19 safety measures that in fact allowed more Oregonians to participate in the legislative process, such as virtual public hearings. Other encouraging steps toward a more welcoming Legislature include new funding in House Bill 5016 for language access services, including Spanish language interpretation, as well as ADA accommodation and ASL interpretation. House Bill 2993 and House Bill 2992 will also support impacted communities to participate in administrative rulemaking and guide how statewide education policy is implemented. Still, there is much work to do to make the Legislature more transparent and inclusive before we can honestly say that marginalized Oregonians have a meaningful opportunity to be heard in a safe environment.

Looking Ahead: Building on the 2021 Legislative Session

With an unprecedented legislative session now behind us, FBO is shifting gears to monitor and support the implementation of new policies and investments that Gov. Brown signs into law. It’s also time to build on this session’s achievements, laying the groundwork for a more coherent system of education funding that ensures all children and young people have what they need to thrive. As FBO bridges between community, policymakers, education stakeholders, and philanthropy, we must work collectively to embed equity, transparency, and accountability into every dollar that Oregon invests in education.

Above all, FBO will continue supporting the power of community-driven advocacy in Oregon education policy, including the Oregon Partners for Education Justice. Reflecting the coalition’s momentum from the 2021 session, we’re thrilled that OPEJ has welcomed Friends of the Children – Portland and Oregon MESA as community-based members. We look forward to working and learning with them alongside OPEJ’s ongoing members, which include APANO, Latino Network, KairosPDX, NAYA, the Coalition of Communities of Color, Self-Enhancement, Inc., Consejo Hispano, REAP, Inc., FACT Oregon, Adelante Mujeres, IRCO, Africa House, the Pacific Islander and Asian Family Center, Unite Oregon, the Black Parent Initiative, Oregon Student Voice, Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, EUVALCREE, the Oregon Coalition of Community Charter Schools, the Early Literacy Success Alliance, Oregon Business Council, Children’s Institute, and Stand for Children.