Multnomah County puts preschool for all on November ballot

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Aug. 7, 2020 12:50 a.m. Updated: Aug. 7, 2020 6:09 p.m.

If approved by voters, a tax on high earners will create an estimated 7,000 new preschool slots by 2026.

Two competing campaigns to expand preschool in Multnomah County have merged and are headed to the November ballot.

The Preschool For All plan, led by Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, passed the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously Thursday.

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“This measure is the culmination of eight years of dedicated work and advocacy by members of our community,” Vega Pederson said in a statement announcing the vote.

“No community in the country has written such a comprehensive measure or designed a policy as expansive as this one in true partnership with Black and brown communities the way we have.”

The goal of the plan is to make tuition-free preschool available for all three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah County by expanding programs at schools, homes and through other avenues like Head Start.

But the plan also includes a mechanism to increase wages for preschool teachers and assistants, as well as offer support and training for teachers and providers.

If voters pass the measure, individuals with taxable income over $125,000 and households making over $200,000 will be charged between 1.5% and 3% on any additional income, with a potential rate increase in 2026. By 2026, county leaders estimate the program will add 7,000 new preschool slots, starting with children in “priority populations.” That includes children of color, children with developmental delays or disabilities, and children living in foster care.

Testifying in support of the measure at Thursday’s meeting, KairosPDX leader Kali Thorne Ladd said the plan is one more step towards setting a strong foundation for student success.

“Everyone keeps asking me, what can I do right now in this time of Black Lives Matter? I would say to all of you —supporting Preschool for All is one thing you can do for Black Lives Matter. And you’ll do it for brown lives, and Indigenous lives, and the Asian and Pacific Islander and Slavic communities and our poor community,” Thorne Ladd said. “This is something you can do to show that children matter.”

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Until Wednesday, Preschool For All wasn’t going to be the only preschool ballot measure in front of voters this fall. Universal Preschool Now, a citizen-led campaign endorsed by over 30 groups including several unions, spent the summer collecting signatures for a ballot initiative. The group submitted more than 30,000 signatures July 6.

But a month later, the Universal Preschool Now campaign announced a merger with Vega Pederson.

“This merger took place after two years of conversations and combined the strengths of each plan to put an exciting, comprehensive measure before voters in November, one that retains the core tenets of our original campaign: free preschool for every kid and a fair wage for every preschool worker,” the Universal Preschool Now campaign said in a statement.

“Now we have a unified, very focused measure that incorporates all the things that both of our coalitions want, which is why we were able to join together in this effort,” Vega Pederson said.

But the Universal Preschool Now campaign’s collected signatures already qualified. So to keep voters from seeing two similar and now-aligned measures on the ballot, Vega Pederson said the Board of Commissioners is working on a way to move forward with one single measure.

The Preschool For All measure will likely be one of the many tax measures voters consider in November, with several agencies seeking financial support.

But Vega Pederson said polling from July shows seven in 10 voters said they’d support a ballot measure to expand preschool. Plus, Vega Pederson added, only a small number of taxpayers would be affected.

“This is an income tax on those that can afford to pay it,” Vega Pederson said. “We’re estimating about 94% of Multnomah County residents wouldn’t be impacted by this.”

If voters pass the measure, the tax would go into effect January 1 with the first expanded preschool slots available in fall 2022. In that time, Vega Pederson said, the plan is to build up a system that’s been hurt hard by COVID-19.

“We will be working with providers and workers and school districts to make sure we’re providing the coaching, the professional development, and really building up their capacity to be part of the Preschool For All program,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how the tax on high earners will be calculated. OPB regrets the error.

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