Think Out Loud

Multnomah County’s universal preschool program is slowly ramping up

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
June 14, 2021 7:11 p.m. Updated: June 16, 2021 4:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, June 15

Preschooler (file photo).

Preschooler (file photo).

Rob Manning / OPB

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Voters in Multnomah County approved the Preschool for All program last November. The program is slowly ramping up with the goal of enrolling up to 1,000 kids in the fall of 2022. The program has ambitious goals, including raising wages for preschool teachers and, eventually, providing free access for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the county. There are also a lot of challenges, including the volatile nature of income tax revenue. Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson joins us to talk about the program she’s championed since its inception.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB.  I’m Dave Miller. Last week we heard about a new study about childcare deserts in Oregon. It found that in all counties in the state there are not enough childcare spots for infants and toddlers. And in most counties there aren’t enough spots for ages 3 to 5. We got a call during the show from a listener in Portland with a simple question, “Didn’t we vote to fix this issue?”  The listener was talking about the Preschool For All measure that voters in Multnomah County passed this past November.

It’s a new income tax on high earners and as the name implies, the idea is to provide free preschool for all residents in Oregon’s largest county. The short answer to our listeners question is that this system is not up and running yet.  But there are bigger questions about how it’s being set up and how it’s going to work. Those are questions for my next guest.  Jessica Vega Peterson is a Multnomah County Commissioner and one of the champions of Preschool For All.  Commissioner Vega Peterson welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Jessica Vega Peterson:  Thanks Dave. It is great to be here.

Miller:  So in the big picture, can you give us a sense for where Preschool For All stands right now?

Peterson:  As you mentioned, voters overwhelmingly supported the Preschool For All ballot measure in November and that meant that starting on January 1st of this year we would start ramping up the program and getting it ready to provide universal preschool to all three and four year olds in Multnomah County. So the Preschool For All program has really been in the works for years. We did a task force that worked on that for two years before it was even on the ballot.

And we knew that as we were creating preschool for all. We were creating a new kind of system that would really focus on inclusion of all children, especially those children who, right now, have the biggest challenges accessing high quality preschool. To build that kind of system we were going to have to create a really good foundation.  So we passed the ballot measure saying that we would have the first children in classrooms fall of 2022. Since the measure passed in Multnomah County we’ve been really ramping up with hiring a director of the new Preschool and Early Childhood Division in the Department of County Human Services. We’ve been staffing up and doing a lot of outreach to providers and community members. It’s a lot of work to build something that’s going to grow into a universal measure for three and four year olds. So there’s a lot of work to do before we open those doors in the fall.

Miller: As you know, the first doors will be opened in the fall of 2022.  So a year and a summer from now how many slots are expected to be available at the beginning of this?

Peterson:  So in the first year, we are expecting anywhere between 500 and 1000 slots to open for children in Multnomah County at a variety of different provider types.

Miller: And are we talking here about new facilities or new publicly funded spots in existing facilities?

Peterson:  That is a great question. What we’re looking at is funding slots in existing facilities. That can be anything from a childcare center that has preschool classrooms for three and four year olds [to] a public school classroom that’s interested in having a preschool program [or] a licensed home-based provider.  But in the first years, especially, we’re really trying to help offset the [cost] that families are facing right now in getting quality preschool and the struggles that providers and workers have in being able to operate.

Miller: But we’ve heard for years now that there are twin issues here- a cost that has been too high for many families, but also not enough availability. And I should note that the lack of availability is actually not as bad in Multnomah County as it is in many other counties around the state. But it’s still an issue here. If we’re largely talking about publicly funded spots in existing locations, how are you going to have enough spots for all of the kids who need it?

Peterson:  When we started the work, we knew there were several obstacles to enough classroom space to serve all three and four year olds. One of those [is not] enough capacity to serve even our existing three and four year olds with a cost [that’s not] out of reach for so many families. So we knew that we were going to have to grow the system over time, help create those spots and put in the public investment to help grow the system more. The ramp up to universal access has always been planned to be a long term investment that would take 10 years to get to full capacity. That’s exactly what the investment in Preschool For All is all about - growing the system so that we do have the capacity.

Miller:  When we talked last week about the statewide child care picture, we heard that in Multnomah County, there are slots for only 20% of the total population of infants and toddlers and 42% of kids ages 3 to 5. That’s according to data crunched by researchers at Portland State University. Does that track, more or less, with the numbers that you have been looking at and basing your projections on?

Peterson:  It tracks fairly closely. We always knew that we didn’t have enough providers. Because of the pandemic we have lost more childcare providers across the spectrum, from infant and toddler care to 3 and 4 year olds to after school care - about 36% of the providers which is why we’ve seen so much investment at the federal level to support childcare providers and help people open up their doors. We were going to have to grow the system over time, regardless [of] the pandemic so we’re really into the long term growth of the system as a whole.

Miller:  For September of 2022, as you said, there’s a range right now of estimates in terms of the slots that will be available between 500 and 1000 spots for Multnomah County residents ages three and four.  The County has said it’s going to prioritize “Families who currently have the least access to high quality preschool for these first available spots.” What are the criteria going to be for these limited spots?

So when we started the work with the task force, the community had done some work identifying which families were having the hardest time accessing quality preschool.  So we know that there’s, um, it’s issues and challenges for black, brown, indigenous and all children of color, migrant and refugee children, children whose families live under the ‘Self sufficiency Standard’ which is a measure of poverty. [Also] children who speak languages other than english, children with developmental delays and disabilities, teen parents, children living in foster care [and] children from families impacted by homelessness or incarceration. These are the priority populations [in] the early years of the program.

Miller: My guess is that even with the populations you’ve just mentioned, there are way more kids who fall into those various categories than you’re gonna have spots in September of 2022. So are we still going to be looking at some kind of lottery system?

Peterson:  The plan is not to have a lottery system. We really were trying to figure out what would be the most equitable way [to] ensure we were reaching those families and those children that we’re targeting in the early years. So we’re going to be working closely with community-based organizations who have relationships with a lot of these families to help fill those initial spots.

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Miller:  So it’ll be up to local community-based organizations to actually make the decisions based on their understanding of family needs and they will each have some number of spots that they can fill?

Peterson:  Yeah, that’s correct. That’s the basic outline. They will be working closely with Multnomah County’s Preschool and Early Learning Division staff to help make that process work smoothly.

Miller:  Can you remind us what you mean when you say ‘high quality preschool’? When you hear high quality preschool, what does it mean?

Peterson:  High quality preschool to me means that we are providing our children with an educational experience that’s developmentally appropriate for their ages to help them grow and thrive socially, emotionally and academically, getting them ready to start kindergarten and the rest of their school career. It’s really looking at the whole child and having components in place for preschool programs that address the whole child.

Miller:  Are there preschool programs in Multnomah County right now that, in your estimation, are not high quality that wouldn’t qualify unless they make changes as high quality?

Peterson:  I don’t know of any specific programs that are preschool focused to do that. We’re looking at the range of ways people are accessing preschool and childcare, finding what kinds of programs are in place and what kind of educational and professional development opportunities those providers and workers have had.

We’re continuing work that’s been ongoing with the State for a while in trying to help improve quality across the board. We’re doing it with Preschool For All recognizing that quality also means culturally inclusive and culturally responsive care. That’s why we’ve invested so much in these early years in coaching and professional development opportunities. Right now we need to be building that capacity, that trust for providers so that they can be a part of Preschool For All.

There isn’t just one methodology or one system that we are pushing out. It’s really about making sure that the components of learning and growth, that are nationally recognized, are [consistently] in programs. The work that we’re doing at the County is to make sure that providers have the support to reach those[components].

Miller:  Is it a fair way to think that one of the distinctions that you’re making here is that this is about education, about preschool developmentally appropriate preschool as opposed to child care [and], at base, about educating young people?

Peterson:  It absolutely is. This isn’t just about babysitting [or] having a place for a kid to go while their parents are at work. It’s really about giving children the right kind of learning, the right kind of environment where they can thrive, where they can grow, where they can get ready for preschool in a way that works for them and their families.

Miller:  How are you going to be making sure that preschool teachers are paid enough that quality teachers will want to actually teach in these schools.

Peterson:  One of the core [policy] components was to recognize the true value of early childhood educators. And that meant providing workers a living wage. In 2018, I think the average preschool teacher wage was about $13/hr. That’s not a living wage and it’s not a wage that keeps people in a field that they might love.

So a key piece of Preschool For All was making sure that both classroom educators and classroom assistants were going to be making a living wage as well as being provided with professional development opportunities, so that it can be viewed as a career that people can stay in. So we really want to elevate the status of early childhood educators as a part of this universal preschool program.

Miller:  I want to turn to some revenue questions. Willamette Week reported back in January that it’s now estimated that this tax is going to take in 21% less than originally forecast when it was in front of voters. You’ve said that’s not going to mean a reduction in the number of kids who can attend preschool. If you can withstand a 20% hit to your estimated revenue, is that a sign that the tax rate is too high?

Peterson:  This is an investment that we’re making in building a system for the long haul.  So we were conservative in our estimates of both how many children we would be able to serve and in what other funding from outside the county for early education would look like. I think what it means more is that we’re going to be able to grow this system in a way that makes sense and recognizes that we have to put money into reserves and contingencies [while] still keeping the program full.

So the main thing is to make sure that we are keeping the program as full as possible even [with] a difference in the revenue estimates. We knew that there was going to be a change in the revenue estimate. Originally it was part of the framework that we put out in July because there was this issue of double taxation for people who are already paying an income tax to Multnomah County.

So while the numbers are different, it really has to do with the conservative budgeting that we did initially, just making sure that we had a long timeline to be able to get to that end point.

Miller:  Looking further into the future, starting in 2026, the program is expected to cost more than the new income tax is expecting to bring in over the course of a decade. There could be a $163 million hole. Is that estimated hole related to the reduction in estimated revenue that we were just talking about? Or is it separate?

Peterson:  The degree to it is probably part of the difference in revenue, although we originally knew that. Costs were going to be so low in the early years compared to what the expenses would be in the outer years as we were ramping up the number of spots. We were going to hit that point at some point before the revenues would then catch up. So it’s not entirely just because of the revenue estimate, but some of it is. But what we’re estimating right now [is] why we’re putting in these early years of funds into a revenue balancing pot of money. [That is so] we have the reserves and that balancing piece in the early years when we will need it in the later years.

Miller:  But is that going to be enough? Or is it the case where we’re embarking on this program for universal pre-k without money to actually fund it that’s currently on the books?

Peterson:  No, no, we definitely have the money. As I said initially, while we were looking at the outlying years for the revenue projections, we knew that there were going to be years where we were going to have to use some of the money that we were getting in the early years to fund the later years. But after several years, that switches again and revenues then start to exceed expenses. So that’s all part of what was understood as we were putting the program together.

Miller:  So maybe I’m missing some important detail here. But what I read is that over the course of a decade, starting in 2026 there is expected to be a $163 million hole. You’re saying that’s not the case?

Peterson:  There are going to be a few years where the anticipated revenue is less than the anticipated expenditures. But then that flips and anticipated revenue starts to exceed the anticipated expenditures. So what we’re doing right now in these early years is putting the money aside for those two years when it flips. And then the revenue mechanism switches back the other way.

Miller:  Jessica Vega Peterson, thanks very much for joining us today. Jessica Vega Peterson is a Multnomah County Commissioner.

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