PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In a statement issued in response to the latest Oregon quarterly revenue forecast, Gov. Tina Kotek said she’d like to allocate $120 million to improve early literacy in the state. 

She wants the money to support science and reading in all 197 of the state’s school districts to help students learn to read and write at a young age. 

These goals align with those brought forth in House Bill 3198, which is currently being debated in Oregon’s legislative session. 

The bill, known as the Early Literacy Success Initiative, has six chief sponsors. One of them, Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, said although the bill’s chief sponsors are all Democrats, it has bipartisan support. 

“I think we’re all here to create brighter and better futures and outcomes for our kids. And I know people realize that if we can increase this really fundamental skill set of being able to read and write, that will give our kids a much, much better opportunity to thrive in life,” Kropf said. 

The ultimate goal of the Early Literacy Success Initiative, Kropf said, is to make sure Oregon schools’ literacy strategies are aligned with those that have been proven effective through data and research. 

The bill would allow districts to craft an early literacy success plan and submit it to the Department of Education to be eligible to receive grants that would support training educators on how to best teach kids how to read, allow for additional summer or after-school tutoring for students and update tools and resources to support literacy in early elementary grades. 

It would support students in prekindergarten through third grade in public school districts or public charter schools. 

According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, less than half the third graders in Oregon, 46.5% in 2018-2019, were reading at their grade level. That’s compared to 82.8% a decade earlier. 

“Fourth grade, fifth grade and on, you’re using those reading skills to learn and if you don’t have that foundational skill, you’re going to disconnect and you’re going to fall further behind in our school system,” Kropf said. 

Kropf, who spent much of his career as a prosecutor and public defender, said he’s worked a lot with the juvenile justice system. He saw a trend of students losing connection in school, dropping out of school and then pursuing criminal paths. 

He feels investing in early literacy will produce better outcomes for children and expects it will improve graduation rates and economic opportunities. 

The Early Literacy Success Initiative would not only provide training for teachers and school support staff and better reading resources for kids, it would also increase support to parents and guardians to help them be partners in the development of their children’s literacy skills. 

If the bill passes, the Oregon Department of Education would allocate grant money to districts. Kotek would like to invest $120 million in the program, but Kropf said the final amount and its official source have yet to be decided. As the bill is currently written, it says the money would come from the state’s general fund. 

As part of their grant applications, districts or public charter schools must submit an early literacy success plan outlining their strategy for improving student literacy. The plan must be updated every two years and must establish four-year goals for the district. 

Kropf said lawmakers have a long-term vision of how this initiative will help schools. He said it won’t fix things overnight, but if schools develop and continue to re-shape their plans, he expects the state will start to see results. 

Public testimony submitted online for the bill shows wide support, but the most common theme among those who oppose it is concern over the fact that schools will be required to apply for grants. Some feel this application process will place an additional strain on schools, especially those operating with limited resources. They fear schools will choose not to apply for the grants to avoid the additional responsibility. 

Barbara Steinberg, the founder and CEO of PDX Reading Specialist, a tutoring company that helps students overcome dyslexia, was one person who submitted testimony opposing the bill. 

She is concerned that HB 3198 leaves it up to individual districts to choose whether to apply for literacy funding. 

“What happens to the students who live in districts that choose not to apply?” she asked. 

KOIN 6 News raised this concern to Kropf. He pointed out that the grants are non-competitive. As long as a district puts together a literacy plan, there will be funding available to them if the bill passes. 

“Our expectation, our hope, was that our school districts take advantage of this,” he said. 

HB 3198 passed out of the House Education Committee with unanimous support. It’s been referred to the Ways and Means Committee and assigned to the Subcommittee on Education. 

Its path forward in the House looks promising, Kropf said, but he’s worried the ongoing walkout by Republicans in the Senate could prevent the bill from making it to the governor’s desk. He knows the bill has support in the Senate, but without enough members to form a quorum, things have been at a standstill. 

“I’m doing my job and I’m going to continue to do that job until we get our work done. We have a responsibility to govern the state,” Kropf said.