2023 Oregon Legislative Session Delivers Mixed Results for Oregon Children

Opportunities to build shared vision for children, public education, and care were undermined by deep divides in Salem.

The House chamber at the Oregon State Capitol.
The House chamber at the Oregon State Capitol.

The 2023 legislative session marked a crossroads for Oregon. As our state emerged from the depths of the pandemic, reckoned with longstanding and newfound injustices, and brought in historic tax revenues, new leadership in Salem had the opportunity to build confidence in Oregon’s future by building a bold and shared vision for Oregon children, education, and care.

Unfortunately, the imperative for policymakers, education leaders, and communities to build that vision together was undermined by deep divides in Salem.

In a session largely defined by broken-down dialogue and closed-door decision-making, the Oregon Legislature pieced together policies and investments in the final hours without a clear, cohesive, or community-driven vision for Oregon children. When state legislators finally adjourned on Sunday, the session ended with an unmistakable need to rethink how Oregon’s policymaking process works to support a future where every child experiences the love, learning, and care they need to thrive at school and in life, no matter their identity, zip code, or circumstances. 

Throughout the session, we saw youth and communities most impacted by the shortcomings of our public education system find few meaningful opportunities to shape policy priorities and solutions. We heard narrow debates about education funding that neglected to consider how our investments are working in reality to equitably support all children and families. Such a fragmented process has left Oregon children with mixed results at a pivotal moment. 

A child runs along the coast in Newport, Oregon.
A child runs along the coast in Newport, Oregon.

Despite the disarray, some encouraging education policy achievements unfolded thanks to the power of collaborative advocacy and shared leadership. Foundations for a Better Oregon was honored to engage and collaborate with legislators on both sides of the aisle representing communities across Oregon, and uplift community-driven public education priorities supported by the Oregon Partners for Education Justice (OPEJ).

After years of passionate advocacy, OPEJ is celebrating the Legislature's $7 million investment to help educators prepare to teach Oregon’s landmark K-12 ethnic studies standards by 2026. Too often, our state breaks its promise to underserved communities when it fails to sustainably fund or implement the racial justice policies and equity investments it passes. Now, the Legislature has finally committed to fulfilling the promise of Oregon’s ethnic studies standards in the classroom, creating robust professional learning opportunities for educators to develop inclusive curriculum and culturally responsive teaching practices. We are grateful that this investment was included in the Governor’s recommended budget, supported unanimously by the Oregon House and Senate, and prioritized by champions in the Joint Ways and Means Education Subcommittee who were determined to not let this investment fall through the cracks once again. 

New partnerships between community-based advocates and state legislators will also lead Oregonians to soon find more transparent and accessible information about public education spending. With a record $10.2 billion invested in Oregon’s State School Fund, the 2023-25 state budget now further directs the Oregon Department of Education to collect, aggregate, and report accessible information about how schools and school districts spend public dollars to equitably serve Oregon 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. Foundations for a Better Oregon and OPEJ worked closely with Rep. Andrea Valderrama, Rep. Ricki Ruiz, House Leadership, and the Legislature’s BIPOC Caucus to champion greater transparency in public education spending, giving communities key information and insight into how our investments can advance a more racially just and community-centered public education system.

The final days of the 2023 session also saw state leaders move significant legislation to improve early literacy and guarantee full school days for students experiencing disability. However, other critical community-driven bills addressing core challenges in Oregon’s public education system did not make it across the finish line.

With advocacy led by the Coalition of Communities of Color, OPEJ partnered with Rep. Ben Bowman and Rep. Hoa Nguyen to develop House Bill 3288, an effort to improve and standardize how Oregon school districts collect and report student race and ethnicity data to ensure every K-12 student is seen and supported. As a racial justice issue elevating concerns about the integrity of Oregon’s K-12 data, this bill earned bipartisan support with legislators recognizing that state, school, and community leaders all need access to accurate demographic data to close unacceptable racial disparities in education. Unfortunately, this modest investment in a critical structural reform at the core of our education system was left out of the final state budget. This omission reflects the troubling nature of Oregon’s budget process, where closed-door negotiations and unilateral decision-making prevent an open and collaborative process where community advocates and even many legislators themselves can shape a coherent and forward-looking package of education investments.

Perhaps most disappointingly, the Legislature’s closed-door budget development process reversed Oregon’s progress toward providing robust summer learning and enrichment opportunities that support children’s academic learning and well-being beyond the classroom. After two years of historic investment in school- and community-based summer learning that reached youth in every corner of our state, the legislative session began with a promising effort to move from year-to-year investments into an equitable and long-term funding strategy for summer programs. Senate Bill 531 would have provided a more sustainable framework for summer learning investments, and Governor Tina Kotek called for a $30 million investment in community-based programs and culturally specific service providers to ensure summer learning would reach historically underserved children and communities. Nevertheless, despite strong bipartisan support and compelling advocacy from communities across the state, budget leaders rejected even a one-time investment in community-based summer learning for 2023, abandoning a vision where all Oregon children have rich year-round opportunities to learn at school, at home, and in community. 

The Oregon State Capitol at dusk.
The Oregon State Capitol at dusk.

Deliberation and principled disagreement can be hallmarks of a healthy participatory democratic process. We should not shy away from difficult conversations that lead to better outcomes for our children and our future. But instead of reflecting the best of democracy, the 2023 legislative session’s mixed results reflect the worst of Oregon policymaking—harmful patterns embedded in our governance systems and culture, bigger than any one representative, senator, or governor. Rather than build a cohesive vision around our shared hopes for young Oregonians, we saw children and education become bargaining chips and talking points.

From early childhood to K-12 to higher education, opportunities for meaningful public engagement on important public policy issues became scarce as the session progressed. Champions for our most impacted communities—including many state legislators themselves—were sidelined. When revenue forecasts revealed $2 billion more in state revenue than expected to invest in shared priorities, many of Oregon’s most promising investments in education equity were still threatened, reduced, or left unfunded without explanation. In the end, transactional negotiations over piecemeal policies and investments overtook attempts to advance a coherent, equitable, and effective strategy where our state, schools, and communities work arm in arm to educate and care for young Oregonians from birth through adolescence into adulthood.

At Foundations for Better Oregon, we believe disrupting these patterns begins with bringing Oregonians together to reimagine and realize a shared vision for children. We must move beyond surface-level solutions and reactionary debates, and toward a comprehensive vision and plan for racially just, community-centered systems that support every child to learn, grow, and thrive. We are determined to center the humanity of our children and the voices of Oregon’s most impacted communities as we bridge between community leaders, policymakers, philanthropy, and system leaders, working to connect across difference, build trust, and forge a truly shared vision. Only then can Oregon move beyond the confines of broken policymaking to realize a better future where all children and our state can flourish.