Multnomah County voters approved the Preschool for All measure last November. That means universal preschool will be coming to a neighborhood near you — eventually.
If you are wrestling a toddler in Portland right now, take heart. By 2022, you may be able to enroll them in free preschool.
That’s because in the historic election last November, 64% of Multnomah County voters agreed to fund a plan for tuition-free preschool with a tax on the county’s highest income earners.
“It was such a fabulous feeling,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who spearheaded the effort. “Everybody was excited and cheering and together — as together as you can be in 2020.” (The election night party was held over Zoom.)
Campaign leaders feel the measure’s overwhelming success was in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions on schools and child care centers and the need to work from home made clear to voters that the child care system was lacking.
“The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that our systems are not adequate to deal with something like a pandemic,” says Angie Garcia, owner of Escuela Viva preschools. “It opened up people’s eyes. Like: ‘Wow, look at how this pandemic is affecting everyone and look at how our child care programs are suffering.’”
Vega Pederson says half of the county’s child care programs had to shutter in 2020.
Under the Preschool for All measure, Vega Pederson hopes many of those programs will come back better than ever. With $133 million expected to be raised in the first year, the plan includes paying preschool teachers a healthy salary — up to $74,000, or about what a local public school kindergarten teacher makes. That’s nearly double what the area’s preschool teachers make now.
Garcia, who started her private preschool in 2009 and has since grown it to two locations and more than 100 families, says she trusts the county to partner with and strengthen existing programs. “There’s fear among providers that this will put them out of business, and I know that the county has no interest in doing that,” she says.
Vega Pederson points to the economic equalizing effects of the program — both for teachers and for the people, largely young mothers, who would otherwise be caring for the tykes.
“[It will be a] huge economic benefit for them, for our entire community — and it’s really going to show the value of the work that they do by paying them a living wage that represents that value,” Vega Pederson says. “This is one of those upstream investments that pay dividends for the kids and for the families. … It makes much more sense to invest in children at this point in their lives than play catch-up.”
‘Preschool for All’ or preschool for most?
Despite a robust planning process over several years, involving nearly 100 people representing more than 50 organizations, there was one group noticeably absent from the Preschool for All planning process: Parent Child Preschools Organization.
Founded in 1956 in Portland, PCPO represents 55 cooperative schools and counts 561 members in Multnomah County.
Cooperative preschools are based on an international model that requires parent participation and focuses on play-based learning. In many co-op preschools, one permanent teacher leads the group while parents take turns as additional classroom support.
PCPO’s nonprofit board is not happy about Multnomah County’s new plan.
“I just feel it’s a little unfortunate that we’re calling it Preschool for All, but at the same time we’re excluding a lot of early learners from this program, and a lot of families,” says Molly Kline, a spokeswoman for the group. Kline says many of their member schools won’t qualify for the funding because they are not large enough to complete the requirements — such as year-round operations, diapering services and onerous recording processes.
Kline likens the new plan to giving everyone a tax credit to buy groceries — but only if they are purchased from chain stores and not smaller, independent businesses and co-ops.
“This will inevitably lead to the shutdown of smaller, independently run schools,” she says.
Vega Pederson says staff did meet with PCPO, once in 2019, but any county-funded providers will need to meet licensure requirements. That is a higher bar than the “recorded” status under which the Oregon Department of Education allows smaller preschools to operate.
Kline, the PCPO communications and engagement director, says excluding the type of program that she put all four of her kids through was “a giant oversight,” and she called on the county to revisit the requirements.
A focus on the underserved
A main focus of the planning process was to improve the access to early childhood education for the area’s racial minorities and underprivileged groups.
Suspensions and expulsions for children of color — especially Black and Native boys — are higher than for white children. Shockingly enough, those disparities can start as young as preschool. Studies have suggested that this sort of early exposure to exclusion can have a domino effect, pushing children to feel cut out of the school community, leading to higher rates of school dropout and even higher rates of incarceration.
Vega Pederson says she wanted to be sure to add in a requirement — and funding — to prevent that from happening under the Preschool for All plan.
“You can’t wave a wand,” the commissioner says. “You have to actually put the resources into changing that dynamic.” Preschool for All will include culturally specific programs, as well as teacher and provider professional development.
With a limited number of spots in the first year, program organizers are also planning to focus their outreach to organizations for BIPOC — Black and Indigenous People of Color. In initial planning, 10,000 spots of the eventual 15,000 will be reserved for “priority” populations. This will not only include children of color but also children of teen parents, military families, children who speak languages other than English, foster children, disabled children, and children experiencing homelessness, parental incarceration or other social disadvantages.
But eventually it will cover all preschool-aged children in the county. Garcia says one of the things she likes most about the program is that it won’t be another Head Start — the free federal program for very-low-income tykes.
“You don’t have the diversity when you have all children of one socioeconomic background,” she says. “Diversity is what makes anything more beautiful and vibrant and more successful.”
If Multnomah’s model is a success, expect to see it copied in other jurisdictions across the country.
Or, if Vega Pederson gets her wish, there will soon be a national policy to replace it.
“My real hope is Congress will get off its butt,” she says, adding: “The U.S. is so far behind other countries in the common-sense supports that [families] need.”
With women now in leading roles throughout Oregon’s state government, the time may come soon for statewide child care supports or free birth-to-3 services. Under Gov. Kate Brown, the state has added free full-day kindergarten for all public school children and built an Early Learning Division.
Emily von W. Gilbert, who helped lead the Universal Preschool NOW effort through Portland’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, says other DSA chapters in Oregon and beyond are looking at how to replicate the success of the local measure.
Von W. Gilbert says she thinks free preschool will have many benefits to the region, but perhaps ones that may not be obvious to those without young children.
“I just think it’s really going to be a profound, massive change that will be hard to pinpoint,” she says.
The DSA leader doesn’t have children of her own, and observed that it was difficult for parents to talk about the economic challenges that children present. Coupling the benefits with better worker wages, she says, made it easier for parents to advocate for the program. “It was easier [for them] to speak up on behalf of ‘why my child’s teacher deserves a living wage,’” von W. Gilbert says.
Asked if birth-to-3 services or child care subsidies are next on the political agenda, von W. Gilbert says the DSA is open to ideas. “This is a big win that can set the stage for more wins,” she says.
Vega Pederson echoes that sentiment, citing the new understanding that has come with COVID-19. “We have seen so clearly what the lack of child care means when you have moms and dads staying at home, so we need to make this investment now,” she says.
It will take years before the program can even try to prove some of its supporters’ loftiest goals — better reading scores, higher high school graduation rates, lower incarceration rates.
But overworked parents and teachers are counting the days until they get their relief.
“I know there are a lot of eyes on Multnomah County,” Garcia says.
Where do I sign up?!
Multnomah County is still working out the process for its new Preschool for All initiative. Implementation planning is happening now, and the county expects to open applications for preschool providers in May or June 2021. Providers will be selected in the fall. Then, families will apply for preschool slots in early 2022. A limited number of 3- and 4-year-olds will be matched with preschools in the spring of next year for a September 2022 start date.
Entry to the preschool program will not be based on income, but the county plans to focus its outreach and communication efforts through aid and cultural organizations. Families will need to meet income requirements to qualify for free before- and after-care programs, however.
The tax on county residents earning more than $125,000 a year, or $200,000 for those filing jointly, is anticipated to start in 2021 and raise $133 million the first year. By 2026, the year for full implementation, staff anticipate receipts will grow to $202 million. By that time, county staff want the program to be offering 15,000 slots to all the county’s 3- and 4-year-olds.
A public advisory group for the program is seeking members now. Visit multco.us for more info.
Shasta Kearns Moore is a Portland-area writer and mother of identical twin boys. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook @ShastaKM.