Neighborhood Houses Peninsula Childrens Learning Center in Southwest Portland

Rafah Shawa is a mom who took advantage of the programs at the Neighborhood Houses Peninsula Childrens Learning Center in Southwest Portland and is now an employee there.

The fate of a proposal to ban suspensions and expulsions at private daycares and preschools is up in the air in the final days of the Oregon legislative session because it’s unclear if lawmakers will allocate the money supporters say is necessary to implement it.

It’s the latest curve ball supporters have encountered in months of pushing for the policy aimed at making early childhood education more equitable for Black, Indigenous and other students of color. Nationally, researchers have found that Black boys and girls in particular are suspended from preschools at highly disproportionate rates.

Senate Bill 236 passed the Senate in early May and is scheduled for a House committee vote Wednesday afternoon. As currently written, the suspension and expulsion ban would apply to a subset of childcare and preschool programs that receive public funding, starting in 2026. The House Committee on Rules is set to consider expanding it to cover all licensed providers.

Advocates of the ban, who faced fierce pushback from some childcare and preschool providers early in the session, said the latest challenge epitomizes how it is an uphill climb to get the Legislature to make concrete changes to start tackling systemic racism.

“It would be nice for Oregon for once to do something ahead of the curve on racial justice and education, given our history of racial exclusion,” said Kali Thorne Ladd, executive director of the Portland charter school KairosPDX, alluding to the fact the Oregon long banned Black people from living inside its borders.

The idea that Oregonians are “not comfortable with banning exclusion of children in preschool is mind boggling,” she said.

Andrew Yoshihara, a nonprofit director and father from Portland who is a leader with the group Black Child Development PDX, said it’s been discouraging and hurtful to hear white lawmakers question the urgency of the ban, dominate public hearings and describe small children as dangerous.

“As of a week ago, they were saying it was not going to be part of this session, they had too many other things to do,” Yoshihara said. “We as Black people just aren’t really championed here. There’s not a lot of things that are put forward, especially statewide, that help us really succeed and achieve in this state. As beautiful a state as it is, it’s hard to live here as a person of color especially as a Black person.”

Yoshihara added, “Some of the language that’s been used by legislators, calling kids dangerous and violent, these are just babies.”

Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Happy Valley Democrat and mother who is the only Black woman in the Oregon Legislature, has focused on police reform and accountability bills this session but was recently drawn into the daycare discussion after the Oregon Department of Justice weighed in behind the scenes on the legality of the ban.

Supporters contacted Bynum with concerns that “now all of a sudden, it looked like DOJ was coming in at the last minute to hijack its progress,” Bynum said in an interview Tuesday. Bynum contacted Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who Bynum said explained the Department of Justice got involved at the request of a client, in this case an agency overseen by Gov. Kate Brown.

A spokesperson for the Early Learning Division, which oversees preschools, acknowledged the agency requested a review of Senate Bill 236 but called the request “typical” for a state agency and declined to share any further information, citing attorney-client privilege.

That legal advice no longer appears to be impeding the bill’s progress. But other potential roadblocks remain. Representatives of the powerful union that represents childcare providers, AFSCME, have warned that lawmakers should not pass the ban unless they also approve funding to create a training and support program for childcare and preschool providers.

The union is still deciding whether to weigh in against Senate Bill 236 with a floor letter, which would be distributed to all lawmakers ahead of a vote if a single lawmaker requests it. Joe Baessler, associate director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75 and a registered lobbyist, said on Tuesday that the union has not yet decided if it will include how lawmakers voted on Senate Bill 236 when the union rates how well legislators lined up in support of union priorities.

“We’re kind of waiting to see what happens,” Baessler said. “If only (Senate Bill 236) goes (without a companion bill to fund training), that’s super problematic for us and our providers. But I couldn’t tell you if we’re going to score it. I’m not sure if we’re going to do a floor letter.”

Baessler said childcare and preschool operators already encounter long wait times when they seek additional resources from the state that might help those providers avoid suspending or expelling a child.

“It feels like there shouldn’t be a problem dedicating resources to this,” Baessler said. “We got all this (federal aid) money, there’s all this national attention on how important childcare is.”

“Why is it easy for the Legislature to say ban expulsions but then not move the bills with the resources to support providers at the same time?” Baessler said.

Committee vote

It’s unclear why House Bill 2166, which would allocate $5.8 million for technical assistance such as coaching aimed at avoiding suspensions and expulsions, hasn’t yet been scheduled for a vote in the Ways and Means committee. The bill also includes a number of other education equity initiatives requested by the governor, but at less than $10 million total, it’s a relatively small request in a session where budget writers are allocating hundreds of millions of dollars for key priorities such as infrastructure, housing and addiction treatment.

Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat who is co-chair of the Ways and Means education subcommittee, wrote in a text message Tuesday that he has seen “no indication” House Bill 2166 is not moving forward. Frederick said “a number of officials wanted clarifications” on parts of the bill, but not the program to help daycare and preschool providers avoid excluding children.

Supporters of the suspension and expulsion ban said some lawmakers have played a key role in advancing the proposal, for example Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie who is chair of the House Committee on Early Childhood.

Bynum said the availability of high-quality childcare is important to her goal of growing and supporting a Black middle class in Oregon. “As a mother, if I drop my child off at daycare, I want to know that they’re going to be safe and loved,” she said. “I also need to make sure that I have reliable childcare so that I can grow in my profession.”

She said that her fellow lawmakers’ handling of proposals such as the ban on suspensions and expulsions can reveal a lot about whether their actions match up to their pledges to support greater equity and dismantle systemic racism that helped spur protests over the last year.

“They’ve been very clear, very forthright about their expectations of leaders who present themselves as allies and we’re seeing a little backsliding on executing on the promises of support,” Bynum said. “We’re not walking away with nothing.

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