Oregon State Capitol
Oregon State Capitol (Getty Images)

The goal was to help school districts with high counts of homeless students.

The legislation drew bipartisan support, responding to emergencies and issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

But the plan died in the closing days of the 2022 session, not because of controversy or political discord. It died of neglect, according to interviews.

Those who considered Senate Bill 1539 said it’s a prime example of what happens when more than 200 proposals are presented in a span of just 32 days with little time for revision and consideration. The bill was in the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee as legislators adjourned Friday.

More than 21,000 students were classified as homeless in Oregon during the 2019-20 school year, according to the most recent state figures.

The Senate bill would have established a pilot program for seven school districts in the state, chosen by the Oregon Department of Education based on the percentage of homeless students and their geographic diversity.

For three years, the districts would have received additional state money to provide support to homeless students including for transportation, meals and shelter. The money would have been available as soon as July.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, was chief sponsor of the proposal. 

“I was told that professional staff didn’t have time to deal with it.”

Knopp said the legislation was the product of work he’d undertaken with former Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, on increasing services to homeless and foster youth during the previous legislative session. At Helt’s request, a bill to allocate more than $3 million for two-year grants to organizations that provide services to unaccompanied homeless youth passed during the 2021 Legislature.

“This was an extension of that and of wanting to do more,” Knopp said. 

Sen. Rachel Armitage, D-Scappoose and Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro signed on as sponsors and supportive testimony came from the Oregon Commission for Women, Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Oregon Advocacy Commissions Office, and the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs.

The cost hadn’t been calculated by March 3, but money was available through Oregon’s Student Investment Account for reducing academic disparities for homeless students and students living in poverty. The proposal wouldn’t require new tax revenue, according to Dae Baek, a senior economist​​ at the Legislative Revenue Office. He joined a public hearing with the Senate committee to answer questions on Feb. 16.

At that point, the bill had already been approved by the Senate Committee on Education. Chair Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, committee chair, was surprised to learn the bill died.

“It may have simply gotten lost in the process, which happens,” Debrow wrote over text. 

“It’s a bummer. I’ll definitely make sure it’s back next year and will work with Knopp to make sure it’s a priority.”

According to Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, who is chair of the Senate committee, senators still had questions about funding for the proposal and there was little time for answers. 

Beyer said they wanted more information on how student homelessness would be defined, where the money would come from and how districts would be selected.

But the record of a work session and public hearing over the bill that took place in February, showed that such questions were answered. 

Baek, the legislative analyst, explained the program would be funded through the already-established corporate activities tax, created to fund school services.

Chris James, coordinator for houseless and unaccompanied youth at the state Education Department, told lawmakers that homeless students would be defined as they were in a federal law that already provided federal dollars to aid homeless youth in schools in Oregon. 

The legislation also included a formula for how districts would be selected, related to the number of students in their districts considered homeless.

Beyer said recently that later his committee learned that Baek’s original assumption about source funding was wrong.

“There just wasn’t enough information known,” Beyer said. “We sent all those questions back to Knopp and he never asked for another work session on the bill.” 

Beyer echoed others in saying that he wished there was more time.

“These sessions roll pretty fast and things are ready or they’re not,” he said. 

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, who also sits on the committee, seconded Beyer. 

“There was more information needed for Ways and Means to fund it,” Findley said, adding that the budget-writing committee was overwhelmed with legislation to review in the session’s 32 days.

“They had 87 bills in front of them at one point in time,” he said. “That’s one of the bad things about the short session.”

Knopp said he will introduce the proposal in the 2023 Legislature.

“There’s no choice but to wait,” he said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.