The Board and staff of Children First for Oregon are mourning the loss of their colleague and friend, Bing Sheldon. Bing may be best known as an architect who built or preserved some of the most well-known buildings in Portland, but his heart was in more than the buildings of the city he loved. Bing understood that children, their health, education and well-being, are the future of our state. As a member of the Children First Board of Directors, Bing advocated tirelessly for children’s policies and programs, as well as the funding that makes those policies work. He was a kind and supporting presence—truly a First Citizen—for all those he worked with and fought for. He will be missed. Click here to read more about his legacy.
You’ve heard the news and read the headlines. Foster care in Oregon is in disarray, resulting in personnel changes, increased oversight and sanctions. These are appropriate responses to an imminent issue. But if you are an 8-year-old boy taken from your home due to abuse or neglect and placed into the home of someone you’ve never met, you need a caring, stable support system. If you are a foster parent opening your home to someone else’s child, you need more than a “thank you”. You need to feel respected and supported in this role.
Children are taken into care in Oregon for good reasons. The majority of foster parents are wonderful people doing very hard work to make their home feel like “home” to these displaced children. The majority of case workers at the Department of Human Services (DHS) dedicate their life’s work to help children in need. Yet they are faced with heavy and complicated caseloads that exceed the number of hours in the day.
While some solutions to these problems are difficult, many are not. Foster parents can be provided with childcare to receive respite from the challenges of day-to-day life. They can be provided additional training, in settings that work for them, where they can talk to other foster parents. They can have a 24-hour call line, so someone can provide help, support or advice at any time. These solutions come with relatively inexpensive price tags, while providing foster parents with the feeling of support and respect that they deserve.
While caseworkers are overloaded, DHS is only funded at 85% of the positions they are allotted. This means that if DHS were funded for the staffing levels they need, caseloads could be reduced. More caseworkers could be working with children in a more-timely fashion, offering them the support and care that they deserve. Children in state care should be truly cared-for by the state, and funding DHS at a full 100% of staffing level for $21.9 million would help to do just that.
Most of us will never know what it is like to be a child taken from your home and put into someone else’s. Most of us will never know what it is like to open your home to a vulnerable child in need at a moment’s notice. Most of us will never know what it is like to feel like you could work for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never give children you are responsible for enough time and attention. But there is something we can do for them all: demand better. Demand the funding to truly support foster care.
How do you know that you’re missing something if you don’t have it already? It’s not a philosophical question, it’s one Oregon’s schoolchildren face every day. Our kids are missing more individual help from teachers because class sizes are too large. They’re missing out on learning more subjects because Oregon’s school year is too short. The bottom line is: Oregon’s kids shouldn’t have to miss out on anything that’s in the best interest of their education.
School districts do what they can with limited resources, but they’re forced to choose among providing students with more instructional hours, lowering class sizes or funding programs that benefit struggling students. So what does that mean for kids here? It means that 7th graders may not learn about plant biology, because there just aren’t enough instructional hours in the day. It means that a student may have difficulty understanding a math problem, but the teacher doesn’t have time to answer all questions. It means that a student who may need extra support doesn’t get it.
In Oregon, the length of the school year and class sizes lag behind national averages. While state requirements vary on the number of instructional days or hours, most states have decided that a 180-day school year is necessary for kids to receive an adequate education. The length of the school year in Oregon is measured by instructional hours. Children in higher grades are required to have a minimum of 990 hours of instruction, which equates to 165 6-hour school days— three full weeks shorter than the majority of the United States. In addition, Oregon has the third largest class size in the country with 21.5 students per teacher, much higher than the national average of 15.6 students per teacher.
Thanks to the work of the Quality Education Commission, we know what kids really need for meaningful achievement. The Commission started 15 years ago to explore research-based practices for optimal student achievement and to determine the investments needed for children to succeed. Each biennium a workgroup is required to report a baseline level of funding that would assure a quality education and allow students to achieve the outcomes they need. If we are to create a true continuum of learning, from early education through high school and beyond; if we are to reach the 40-40-20 goals by 2025 (by the time this year’s kindergarteners complete 8th grade), then we must choose to make investments to allow kids to learn and teachers to teach.
Washington state, which has a 180-day school year and 19.4 student-teacher ratio, spends $800 more per student than Oregon and their Supreme Court has found the legislature in contempt for a lack of funding for schools. $490 million per biennium would get Oregon up to par with Washington state’s number of students per teacher in public schools. Investing $460 million per biennium in Oregon would give school districts the ability to offer every student in in our state a full 180-day school year.
We want our students to reach their academic potential, increase graduation rates and create a better future for our state, so it only follows that we must dedicate resources for children to achieve those goals. Our kids can’t afford to miss another day of academic opportunity, so let’s invest what is necessary to secure their future.
Alia (not her real name) was a straight-A seventh grader until she became increasingly absent from class. Even when she did attend, she would often fall asleep. Her caring teacher had a long, quiet talk with Alia and found out the reason: Alia, her single dad and her sister had become homeless.
It started when the rent was raised on their apartment and they couldn’t afford it. The family eventually found a new place, but it was far from their school. The sisters wanted to stay at the same school and didn’t want anyone to know about their situation, so they took two buses to get to their old bus stop – Alia woke up at 4 a.m. daily for the two-hour ordeal.
Soon, it happened again: rent was hiked and they lost their home. The situation became untenable and, despite all the best efforts of the teacher, Alia and her sister dropped out of school. No one knows what has happened to them.
Alia’s story is not unique. The Oregon Department of Education confirmed that 20,524 children attending schools in Oregon school districts were homeless in the 2014-15 school year.[i] It’s not hard to see why.
Median rent has increased by 9%, while median family income has declined by 7%, in the period since before the recession. [ii] With fewer than 50,000 affordable units in the state, stories like Alia’s are becoming more common. Over half of renting households in every area of the state from 2009 to 2013 were “rent burdened” and spent 30% or more of their incomes on housing, putting Oregon in the bottom third of states nationally. The solution lies in preserving existing affordable housing units, building new ones and public policy changes. [iii] More specifically, increasing affordable housing stock by 50%, which will cost as much as $500 million. Preserving existing stock ($22 million per biennium) and making home ownership more affordable for 10,000 new homebuyers ($40 million per biennium) over the next five years would ensure every Oregon family has access to affordable housing.
The cost of creating new, and preserving existing, affordable housing is a lot to ask in these financially challenging times for the state. Raising revenue is the key to providing the services that Oregon’s children need and that requires both individuals and businesses do their part. Those who can must pay their fair share so that children, like Alia, don’t end up paying with their futures.
[i] Oregon Statewide Report Card 2014-2015, Oregon Department of Education.
[ii] Rent and median income: US Census Bureau, American FactFinder Tables B25064 (rent) and B19113
[iii] Housing stock: Oregon Housing and Community Services, OHCS Affordable Rental Housing Projects (http://www.oregon.gov/ohcs/Pages/multifamily-housing-funded-applicants.aspx)
The 2016 Legislative Session was marked by both highs and lows for Oregon’s children and their families. United for Kids, which grew by 20% to 77 organizations for the 2016 session, continued to be a strong voice for Oregon’s children. The 2016 Children’s Agenda promoted public policy change and shared investments to benefit children’s health, safety, education and economic security. United for Kids presents this recap of how Children’s Agenda items fared during the 32-day legislative session.
The biggest impact for the economic security of children will undoubtedly be raising the minimum wage. SB 1532 received national attention by gradually raising the minimum wage to the highest level in the country and by varying the wage by region. Housing advocates also took a step forward: local governments now have the ability to require some lower priced units in large developments – also known as inclusionary zoning – and the legislature dedicated some funds to housing services. Tenants in month-to-month leases now have more security because their rent cannot be raised in the first year and they must receive 90-day notice before for any increase after the first year.
Education advocates succeeded in securing $5.4 million needed for early childhood and special education caseloads. Legislators corrected a budget error and promised Head Start slots with $5.3 million. Unfortunately, a task force to determine the best ways to prevent summer learning loss by expanding summer learning opportunities to school kids hit a last minute barrier and didn’t cross the finish line in 2016.
Health and Safety
Some well-deserved policies successfully passed both chambers in 2016. Residential foster care settings are subject to additional requirements and oversight due to the Children’s Safety and Dignity bill, which unanimously passed both chambers. Pacific Islanders legally residing in Oregon under the compact of free association (COFA) now have health care premium assistance, while DCBS, the Health Authority and stakeholders tasked with developing a blueprint for a Basic Health Program for individuals too poor to afford health exchange plans, but not eligible for Medicaid. While the Healthy Climate Bill to create a market-based carbon reduction system failed, $280,000 was allocated to DEQ to plan for a system that would be effective in Oregon. Regrettably, after a hard push by tobacco lobbyists, none of the three bills protecting children from the dangers of smoking or vaping was successful.
Looking Ahead to 2017
More than 61% of the items in the 2016 Children’s Agenda passed, with allocations benefitting the economic security, education and health & safety of children and their families totaling nearly $40 million. For a full list of 2016 successes, click here.
We must do more. Safe Routes to Schools, physical education in schools, preventing nicotine addiction in kids, safer well water, among others – all included in this year’s Agenda – deserved the support and the votes of legislators. If we are truly going to make Oregon the best place to be a kid, those who govern must place children’s interests over those of special interests. Those who hold the purse strings must devote resources sufficient enough to make more than lukewarm change for Oregon’s children. We look forward to working with all United for Kids advocates in 2017 to make kids the #1 priority.