Meet Dana Hepper

The Ounce is celebrating a legislative win for early childhood in Oregon. The state recently passed the Student Success Act Bill (HB 3427), which will result in a $1 billion dollar annual investment in early learning and K-12 education.

We sat down with Dana Hepper, director of policy & advocacy at the Children’s Institute in Oregon, about the instrumental role she played in getting this legislation passed.

      1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

        I’m the Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Children’s Institute. The Children’s Institute works in Oregon to ensure all children have the opportunity to thrive. We do this through advocacy, research, policy and practice. My role is working with state agencies, the Early Childhood Coalition, business leaders, K-12 partners, and others to develop and move a legislative agenda and support effective implementation.

        This legislative session, we are thrilled to have won a $400 million on-going investment in early learning programs (in addition to a Paid Family & Medical Leave program, universally available home visits, and a child care taskforce). This $400 million early learning investment is one piece of a $2 billion investment in education from early learning through 12th grade, with on-going and dedicated funding from a new tax on business. I have loved working in collaboration with our partners to build and implement a shared strategy to win.

      2. Can you tell the story of Oregon and the state’s early childhood landscape? How did you and your coalition members set the stage for such a big ask?

        The stage-setting for this ask has been going on since the founding of Children’s Institute, 16 years ago. We’ve been steadily and boldly informing the public and elected officials about the importance of the earliest years of a child’s life.

        More recently, Oregonians rejected a ballot measure to raise the Corporate Tax in Oregon (which was the lowest in the nation) to fund all public services. After that defeat, the Legislature decided to focus on funding for K-12 public education specifically. We convened early childhood stakeholders to advocate for the focus to be broadened to include early childhood. The Speaker of the House was an ally, and we ultimately won on this expanded charge.

        Then we worked with stakeholders and the Early Learning Division (the state agency overseeing early learning) to develop a specific ask for more than $400 million dedicated to specific early learning programs. The Governor included $380 million of the ask in her budget – our second big win in the process.

        Simultaneously, we worked throughout 2018 with K-12 school district leaders to build their understanding and support for early childhood. This work paid off when K-12 advocates also began to support the $400 million investment – a critical partner, as the rest of the funding would go to K-12 education. All sessions, we ran weekly lobby meetings and monthly coalition meetings to coordinate meetings with legislators, lobby days, messages, action alerts, testimony, and more. Our coordinated strategy worked!

      3. Can you describe the feeling you had as the legislature debated whether Student Success Act Bill was a sound investment?

        Wow – I felt so nervous and excited! We had so much education to do of the Committee considering this legislation. They did not understand the early learning funding streams or programs – which was frustrating at times. Ultimately, the unanimous support among advocates, the Early Learning Division, the Governor’s office, our champion legislators, for the specific list of investments gave legislators the confidence that the money would be well spent.

        On the night of the vote, there were tears, applause, hugging, and celebration in the halls of the Capitol.

      4. Now that you’ve secured the funding, what’s next?

        Implementation! There is so much work to do to prepare to get these dollars out the door. Regional Early Learning Hubs are creating plans for how to expand access to early learning programs.

        The Early Childhood Coalition partners took some time to celebrate together. Now we continue to meet monthly to coordinate our work on implementation, improve how we work as a coalition, and prepare for the next legislative session.

        The Children’s Institute is providing support to Early Learning Hubs and community organizations that work with parents to ensure the Hub plans reflect the hopes and dreams of families in each community.

      5. What are you most excited about with the rollout out of the Student Success Act?

        When the first draft of the Student Success Act’s early learning investments came out, some of the investments we were advocating for were left out. Legislators understood preschool (including Head Start & Early Childhood Special Education), and they were prioritizing these investments over others that start earlier. I’m most excited that we were able to shift the conversation to acknowledge that learning starts at birth (and before). We won meaningful investments in infants and toddlers, including $20 million to expand Early Head Start.

      6. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

        Check out our webpage, put together by CI’s amazing communications team, dedicated to the implementation of the Student Success Act.

        Finally, let’s be bolder together and ask for what families with young children are telling us they really need!