Multnomah County’s universal preschool initiative not universal — yet

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
May 2, 2022 12 p.m.

Interest in Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program has already exceeded the number of available slots, in just the first few weeks it’s been open.

For its first year, Preschool For All has 677 slots available for 3- and 4-year-olds in Multnomah County this fall. So far, Multnomah County Preschool and Early Learning Director Leslee Barnes said they’ve received a little over 800 applications.


“Parents are really showing us that this is something they really need, and are looking forward to,” Barnes said.

Barnes said about 70% of applications identify with groups that historically have the least access to preschool, including families of color and families experiencing homelessness.

Children in those groups are given priority to the preschool programs.

Last summer, providers signed up to be in the Preschool For All system as a “pilot site” to offer spots and contract with the county to offer free preschool.

Of the over 600 slots, 369 are in small, home-based centers. Those types of child care providers were a focus of the program. But Head Start and school-based programs are also a part of the offerings.

“For us, becoming universal, we’re attaching ourselves and filling in some gaps for Multnomah County,” Barnes said.

Barnes said the county’s goal is to add 500 additional slots every year for the next 10 years, until any family who wants preschool can sign up for it. But it won’t happen overnight.


“We are trying to build an intentional system, and that takes time,” Barnes said.

That includes helping current providers expand or reopen after the pandemic.

“We’ve had a child care desert, there’s not a lot of offerings... currently, there’s about a third of providers still closed, may not come back,” Barnes said. “So we’re trying to make up for that... correct some deficits — there just isn’t enough slots.”

Building this program also means making sure child care providers and staff are supported.

“We want people to think about this as a real job, and what are the things we need to do to make it so — livable wages, benefits, workforce opportunities for people who don’t speak English as a first language,” Barnes said.

In addition to existing child care sites, the county also offers a pathways program for people interested in becoming providers. They receive coaching, training, and other support, with the goal of eventually opening up more child care spots in the county.

Applications for the fall close Wednesday, May 4, and Barnes said families will be notified by July.

Barnes said the county will also share links on its website to other child care preschool offerings with availability.

For providers, applications will open soon for pilot sites. Applications for the those interested in participating in the pathways program remains open.

And next spring, families will be able to sign up again for free preschool.

“I hope that people are patient in knowing that we’ll be adding new slots each year,” Barnes said.