Oregon schools have increasingly responded to research that shows early learning sets students on a path to greater chances of academic success. As K-12 public schools answer a need outside their usual mandate, the Legislature has also become more involved.
The 2019 Joint Committee on Student Success included an early childhood education subcommittee. The committee dug into child care, preschool programs and equitable opportunities for kids before they enter the public school system.
This session, the House added the Early Childhood Committee, chaired by Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie. It has continued exploring the intersection of public policy and equitable access to education in the earliest formative years.
“Our data-driven work so far this session has been less about dollars per kid, but more in terms of how Oregon is faring compared to the rest of the nation in supporting our early childhood and learning infrastructure so that providers don’t permanently close their doors,” Power said.
Children ages 0-5 are the most racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse Oregonians and also the most likely to live in poverty, according to Dana Hepper, Children’s Institute director of policy and advocacy. The institute advocates for family and child-friendly policies.
“These first five years are a time of rapid brain development, which sets the foundation for future learning and life,” Hepper said. “While research and community knowledge tell us this period is critical, it is often seen as the responsibility of parents alone and underattended to in the public sector.”
Hepper said that by kindergarten, schools are seeing systemic gaps by race/ethnicity, income, language, geographic isolation, disability and more.
The public response has been lacking. Approximately 45,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Oregon are eligible for publicly funded preschool because they live in low-income households, but state and federal funds only serve about 15,000.
“We have a lot of work to do to create and fund an early childhood system that supports all children to thrive and eliminates disparities by kindergarten entry,” Hepper said.
School districts around the state are using grants, community partners and their own staff to set up preschool and daycare programs to help kids get a jump-start on kindergarten readiness.
Roughly 60% of the participants are Spanish speakers and the rest are mostly families who are economically disadvantaged, according to McMinnville Superintendent Maryalice Russell. Each family leaves the lessons with a bag of high-quality, age-appropriate books and toys.
The children of parents who attend score higher on kindergarten assessment tests, according to McMinnville data, showing that investments in prekindergarten learning pay dividends down the road.
This year a group of education advocates has been meeting with the understanding that “education” policy goes from birth through college or trade schools. This group has been talking about budgets, investment and the needs of each sector as students move and transition along the way.
Among the bills we are watching is HB 3073, which aims to make early learning more widely available and to ensure that children enter school ready to learn.
This early learning work is a reminder that we should always be watching for ways K-12 instruction can overlap and reinforce other education missions.