July 22, 2020

Oregon has the sixth-most expensive childcare costs in the United States. But at the same time, just 15 percent of families in the state have access to publicly funded preschool. The Preschool For All Task Force — a coalition of community organizations, childcare experts, providers, business leaders and parents — is working to change a flawed system made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Members of the task force briefed the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, July 21, on the funding mechanisms to publicly fund preschool for all 3- and 4-years olds in Multnomah County. If all goes as planned, voters would decide on the proposal in an upcoming ballot measure. 

“Childcare is in a crisis,” said Leslee Barnes, the executive director of Village Childcare. “Childcare providers have been hit hard by COVID-19. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous and other providers of color. Small business supports and other sources of relief haven’t reached many of these providers. While they are doing everything they can to stay open and support the family and children they care for, they put themselves at risk. The system has made it increasingly difficult to do so and stay open.”

The proposal includes a marginal income tax on high-income earners in Multnomah County. The tax would be 1.5 percent on income above $125,000 for individuals and $200,000 for joint filers, and an additional 1.5 percent on income above $250,000 for individuals and $400,000 for joint filers. The Department of County Human Services would implement and administer the program.

“The economic times are one of the reasons we want to be cognizant of the tax rates we are levying,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who’s leading the initiative. “We want to be fiscally responsible and really fund what’s needed to grow the program in the right way.” 

The briefing on the task force’s specific proposal detailed how the program would address disparities for families while investing in a sustainable, diverse childcare workforce representative of the County as a whole.

The value of early childhood education

Research cited by the task force shows that every dollar invested in early childhood education yields a return of $7 to $10 for the community. In Multnomah County, where almost 50 percent of renters are cost burdened, preschool can cost more than a secondary education. For those reasons, Commissioner Vega Pederson said, there needs to be a solution that involves public funding.

“Preschool is one of those upstream investments that has been shown to address many of the challenges our community faces today,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “We know the more upstream we get, the more preventative we can be with our policy making.”

Task Force leaders say an investment in early childhood education would be especially helpful for children for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, improving their educational outcomes and reducing disparities.

“One year of high-quality universal preschool could practically eliminate the Black-white reading skills gap from seven months to almost zero, and cut the math skills gap almost in half from nine months to five months,” said Andrea Valderrama, Advocacy Director for Coalitions of Communities of Color.

In addition to families of color, Preschool for All would initially prioritize families experiencing disproportionate barriers, including non-English speaking families, families in poverty and households with disabilities.

Preschool for All would provide a range of options to meet the needs of families, including full-, part- and extended-day options to meet different families’ work schedules, along with in-home and center-based programs. 

“As a woman of color, I think about how many teachers did I have who looked like me, and honestly I can’t think of one, maybe until college,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “It’s one thing to talk about preschool. But it’s another thing to talk about the equity and the representation of people that serve our children, and how they represent our children and our communities of color, so this is really exciting.”

Addressing workforce disparities

The task force also calls for a more sustainable model for building up Multnomah County’s early childhood workforce — through training, recruitment and equal compensation for early childhood providers. 

The plan would ensure preschool providers receive pay on par with kindergarten teachers, and an $18-an-hour minimum wage for teacher assistants. Locally, the early childhood workforce has long been undervalued compared to other educators, said Eva Rippeteau, who works with Childcare Local 132, a union representing Oregon child care providers.

In 2016, 113 early childhood educators graduated from Multnomah County programs. An additional 2,300 are needed across the County and achieve a fully universal system, Rippeteau said.

“The median preschool teacher wage in Oregon in 2018 was $13.70 per hour,” Rippeteau said. “For licensed in-home providers, it drops to under $6 an hour and doesn’t reflect many extra hours spent on administrative duties before children arrive and after they have gone home. That of a kindergarten teacher was $38.80 per hour by comparison.”

Preschool for All also aims to address disparities affecting people of color in the early education workforce. The program would preserve and expand the number of workers from diverse backgrounds and improve access to linguistic and cultural supports for providers of color and those for whom English is a second language.

Implementing the program

If voters approve the measure, the Department of County Human Services would implement and administer Preschool for All, interim Human Services Director Mohammad Bader said Tuesday.

“It is similar to the work we have done with the SUN schools where we partner with culturally specific community partners to deliver services that families are comfortable with and supportive of,” Bader said. “We know that with this model, parents and families will make use of this program and put their children on a path to success.”

The department would handle three buckets of work:

  • Program oversight, including strategic planning, daily operations, funding and program evaluation

  • Outreach to families through direct communication with parents on program effectiveness and participation opportunities

  • Support for preschool providers through coaching and professional development

An advisory group composed of preschool providers, parents and culturally specific organizations would evaluate the program and provide feedback. An outside evaluator would conduct regular financial and program audits. 

Under the current plan, Preschool for All would begin serving children by September 2022. By the 2026-27 school year, it would serve all families whose incomes fall below the Self Sufficiency Standard — the amount of income required to meet basic needs without public subsidies and without private support — with 10,000 preschool slots. And it would reach full capacity by 2030-31 with 15,000 preschool slots.. 

More discussions among leaders, experts, parents and the broader community are expected before the Board of Commissioners votes on referring Preschool for All to the ballot. On Tuesday, July 28, the Board will meet again for another discussion about the specifics of the program. 

“We want to make sure we are growing in the right way and we are growing in the way that makes sense in terms of the dollars we need and the way we are getting there and what we are asking the taxpayers to support,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said.