Think Out Loud

Parents and providers highlight successes of Preschool for All

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Dec. 19, 2023 11:07 p.m. Updated: Jan. 4, 2024 6:06 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Dec. 29

Preschoolers working together on a puzzle (file photo).

FILE: Preschoolers work together on a puzzle.

Rob Manning / OPB


The lack of affordable child care in Oregon and the nation has been described as a crisis. In 2020, Multnomah County voters passed a tax on high income earners to fund the Preschool for All measure. The idea is to give access to quality early childhood education for every family in the county regardless of their ability to pay. The program is rolling out in phases and is now providing free preschool to some families for the second year. It has subsidized some existing preschool programs, but hasn’t yet created the 12,000 new publicly funded preschool seats, which it’s supposed to do by 2030.

But capacity is expanding — if slowly — and there are now hundreds of families that have preschool for their children that would have been difficult or impossible for them to get otherwise before the program was implemented. We talk with the Director of Preschool & Early Learning Division Leslee Barnes and economist Mary King, along with Preschool for All providers and parents in front of a live audience at the Rockwood Market Hall in Gresham.

The show is part of the series funded by the Oregon Community Foundation that examines some of Oregon’s biggest problems and possible solutions.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, coming to you today in front of an audience at the Rockwood Market Hall in Gresham.


We have come here today to talk about early childhood education in 2020. Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly approved a new tax on high income earners. The money is dedicated to a program called Preschool for All. The idea is to give access to quality early childhood education for every family in the county, regardless of their ability to pay.  The program is ramping up over time and it’s now in its second year of operation. It has subsidized some existing preschool programs and has created new ones, but it has a long way to go before it meets the goal of 12,000 publicly-funded preschool slots by 2030.

We’re gonna hear today from parents, educators and an academic who has studied the impact of the childcare shortage. We start right now with Leslee Barnes. She is the director of Multnomah County’s Preschool & Early Learning Division. It’s her job, with other people, to implement this new program. Leslee Barnes, thanks for having us here.

Leslee Barnes: Thank you for inviting me.

Miller: I want to start with a basic question. How many Multnomah County three and four year olds are going to free preschool right now through this program?

Barnes: Close to 1,400 children. So of the slots that we offered last year, we’re at about 96% full. And so that means that there’s a whole crop of three and four year olds that are in preschool that weren’t there before the ballot measure passed. So it’s a huge accomplishment - my team, all the folks that planned, all the providers. For us to offer that, is a huge accomplishment.

Miller: What’s the goal in 2030? If all goes well, what is the dream for what it’s going to be like?

Barnes: The dream is that any family that wants to have a free, publicly-funded preschool slot would have one by year 2030. So that means not just Preschool for All funded slots but Head Start slots, Preschool Promise slots. Universal in Multnomah County, really depends upon all of those funding streams and all of those opportunities in the community, working together so that families can find what they’re looking for.

Miller: That’s a key point here. So the plan is not for Multnomah County’s voter-passed program to take care of all free slots, but to be a big part of a relatively confusing patchwork, actually, of free childcare slots

Barnes: Agreed. We’re trying to knit together a system that looks like “no wrong door” for families. So families don’t care if they’re getting Preschool Promise [or] Preschool for All. They want the care and the preschool that is right for their family. And so what we’re trying to make sure is [that] we knit together a system that supports that decision for families. So whether it is a full day, 10-hour preschool opportunity or a school day, six-hour day preschool training, whatever kind of flushes out in the end. And those options are the kinds of things that we’re building in our system right now.

Miller: And just to be clear, are we only talking about preschool preparatory school for kindergarten for three and four year olds, or are we talking about, say, daycare or centers that would take infants or toddlers?

Barnes: We’re talking about all of that, again, based on family choice and what they’re looking for. But what we’re looking for is developmentally appropriate, culturally-responsive, joyous opportunities for children between the ages of three and four. We’re also looking for opportunities that look like welcoming, right? Things that look like my home, things that sound like my language, people that look like me, the kind of food that I like to eat. And so we’re trying to figure out, what do families want? This plan was really pushed forward by families, culturally-specific families. Our partners at the PAC (Parent Accountability Council) at Early Learning Multnomah told us, “this is what we want.” We’re not talking about miniature K-12. We’re talking about really preparing families for a future that looks like joyous opportunities for their children.

Miller: I want to go back in time just a little bit. It wasn’t that long ago - although in COVID years it seems like a long time ago - but what are the basics of what voters approved in 2020?

Barnes: What they approved is a universal preschool measure that taxes the highest income earners in our county. I don’t think everyone knew this, but there wasn’t a system that supported that. And so when they voted that in, we had to design a tax system, right? A tax system that pays for that. So that didn’t exist prior to the ballot measure. But I think people didn’t quite understand what they were paying for because early learning has been underfunded, ignored [and] disrespected, really for decades. And I think there’s a lot to look at around wages, around the respectability of it as a profession. And I think those are the things that we’re also having to do. Like what does it look like for someone to think about this as a career that pays them well, that they can stay in as a career?

Those are things that we have to answer with workforce development messages about the importance of early learning and messages about, what does it look like for you as a high schooler to think about becoming a preschool teacher? Whereas, in the past, people have said “Stay away from that, they’re only paying you $10 an hour. You don’t want to do that.” So we had people actively fighting against that as a profession. So we’re fighting to make sure people recognize that it is a new opportunity because of Preschool for All supporting this system.

Miller: There’s a lot of issues I want to dig into as we go, including workforce development and how you build that pipeline. The measure passed overwhelmingly. It was about two-to-one in November of 2020. In a really intensely COVID-affected time and a time when it was hard to know what was going to happen [politically]. Did you think it was going to pass like that?

Barnes: 64.9%, to be exact. No, I was surprised because even though I was on the task force, there was a lot of folks that were here. It was 10 years of planning and thoughtfulness to get to that point.

Miller: And two different measures, right?

Barnes: Well, they got married and became this one that passed. So we’ll just say it that way [Laughter].

I remember where I was sitting the night that it passed and I was shocked. I mean, because we were in the midst of so much uncertainty and childcare programs were devastated at that time. Parents didn’t know where to go and I think it was a reckoning moment where people said “we cannot let this go on anymore.” And COVID is one of the reasons why it passed. I will say, not just all the things we did before, but sometimes in crisis, there’s something beautiful that comes out of it. And I think I called one of the members of the PAC and said, “do you believe that this just happened?” And she was like, “no.” I mean, I think we’re in tears.

Miller: What do you mean when you say that COVID is one of the reasons it passed? I mean, in particular, what do you think people, who hadn’t reckoned with this before, understood about the role that childcare plays in society because of the closure of childcare centers?

Barnes: They were the wheels that kept the economy going for many families. People could not work because their children had no place to go. And I think we knew that, but we really knew it when COVID hit and people shut down. There were providers still struggling through that and still stayed open, really putting their own health on the line. Not all the things that we didn’t know about COVID, I mean, but people I think said, “OK, this is real, like we’ve been saying this.” I’ve been in this field over 25 years and we’ve been saying this is what keeps the wheels of the economy going. Preschool, childcare, if that doesn’t happen, then really a lot of the wheels of the economy stops. And so we’re still in recovery from that now, 20% are still closed. I think we’re one of the reasons why we’ll bring some of those folks back is because now it’s recognized, stable, paid well and there supports around that.

Miller: How is the system that you’ve been building, based on voter approval for the last couple of years, similar or different from other efforts that have the same intentions in other big cities around the country?

Barnes: I think it’s really the work of that planning, that 10-year planning. I mean, we had healthcare, we had K-12, we had for profit [and] nonprofit philanthropy. We had a champion in the then Commissioner Vega Pederson. We looked at every part of this.

One of the things I will say is different is that we really recognize that we wanted to think about equity, racial equity, and how would this roll out impact existing providers? Other places, they just said we’re only gonna fund school districts, we’re only gonna fund these bright shiny centers. But we know in our community that parents want those providers, like I said earlier, that look like them that are culturally-responsive. And we wanted to invest there because that’s what parents said they wanted. We didn’t want to open something that shut them down. So we really planned, fully thought about what impacts in the community would be. And I think that is part of the difference.

And we welcome those…I mean, if family childcare doesn’t work, none of this works. So we can test things out there, we know we’re doing well. So we’re really focusing on that and you’ll see some of our folks here, they were family childcare. They’ve been expanded to center-based care. It really has stabilized them in a way that looks like they can have a stronger business. I think that is some of the difference.

Miller: We actually have with us, Karen Messner, who is the owner of two Pequeñitos Child Care centers, one in North Portland and one in Northeast Portland. You are a part of Preschool for All now, but I thought we could start with the pre-years. What was it like for you with the pandemic and before you were a part of this county program?

Karen Messner: I started like 17 years ago on in-home. I have three in-home and when COVID hit, it was a mess. We only have five kids and we [can’t] afford to keep all our staff because by that time ERDC (Employment Related Day Care), they only pay the time when the kids come. If they don’t show up, they don’t pay you. And families who are private pay, they don’t come because they are not working. Some stuff they don’t wanna work because they scared to be…for the COVID. And in that year, I start on the process of open my first center, [and] takes me two years to open it.

Miller: The center as opposed to a home-based care?

Messner: Yeah, I start like a in-home daycare and I open a center with a capacity for 70 kids and I get my application for Preschool for All. They give me the stability to hire my teachers. They offer them good salaries, good benefits. Families are happy because this is free, they can offer 10 hours a day. They have a safe and quality child care. And I opened my second center this year with capacity for 53 kids.


And I can say right now, we grow up. We have, between the three places, one school, after-school program, 130 kids, 30 staff. All my staff are really happy, really excited because they are making good money, good salaries and benefits.

Miller: Are they getting paid more or do they have better benefits than they did before?

Messner: Oh yes. I offer them medical, dental, sick time, holidays. Right now, I offer all that to my staff.

Miller: Has that affected the quality of the people who are applying for jobs, the experience they have and the experience for your kids - being able to pay people more?

Messner: Yes. I try to hire with a bachelor degree. I prefer teachers with a bachelor degree. Last year, I have the opportunity to bring seven teachers from Mexico on a special program. They called G1 visas, Cultural Exchange visas. All my teachers have a bachelor’s degree. You can see there is a big difference. They are really happy and excited to work here. My program is in Spanish immersion school. So that’s the reason why I bring all native Spanish speakers and it’s great. The families, I can say, are really happy with the programs. I can hear every single day they [come] to Preschool for All because they can work, they have a great place where to take the kids, safe and it’s really easy to communicate with them. If you have something, you email them and you have an answer right away. It’s great.

Miller: When you say “they,” meaning county employees who work for this program and you’ve had an easy time with communication?

Messner: Yes.

Miller: What have you heard from parents of your kids?

Messner: They say if it’s not Preschool for All, then to support them, they [can’t] afford to pay child care because childcare is really, really expensive, like a mortgage. Or difficult to find places where to pay and to trust, and for us is the same. You don’t have to be thinking, do I have enough money to pay my rent? Preschool for All sends you the kids or the families. You just do the interview, they choose the place where they wanna go. So it’s really easy to have your center full with the capacity in that way you can offer jobs and everything for your employees.

Miller: So you’ve opened up two centers just in the last two years. How much more demand is there for your services?

Messner: I have a big waiting list.

Miller: Would you like to open a third center?

Messner: Yeah, I’m working on it.


Miller: And is it gonna be a challenge to hire enough people to work in it?

Messner: It is. I have to be honest. Yes, it is.

Miller: Karen Messner, thanks very much.

Messner: Thank you.


Miller: That is Karen Messner who is the owner of two Pequeñitos Child Care centers.

We’ve got a parent of two children with us, one of whom began at a Preschool for All school, Escuela Viva, this fall. Arianna Avena, welcome to the show.

Arianna Avena: Thanks for having me.

Miller: My understanding is that you tried to get your daughter into a Preschool for All slot last year but it didn’t work out. What was last year like for you?

Avena: Traumatic to say the least. We went through several preschools last year. My kid is neurodivergent. They have cognitive delays in many areas. One of them is impulse control, gross motor function, and they also have sensory processing disorder. But I was one of those parents who was thinking about preschool from the time that I was pregnant and I was really, really excited and had dreamt this dream for so long of what it was gonna be like to send them there. And it just was the opposite experience of what I thought it was gonna be.

So yeah, we went through three preschools. We were asked to leave one of them because of her neurodivergent behavior. Another one, we experienced some abuse and we had to open up a DHS case around it. And then the other was wonderful. It was a great neurodiverse school, specifically serving that community of kids, but it was not in Portland, it was in Tigard. So it was like 35 minutes to get there every day. So that’s why we applied again.

Miller: And this time you got in.

Avena: We got in.

Miller: What’s it been like for you and for your family?

Avena: It’s been amazing. I did struggle with the thought of even trying again, to be honest with you, to go to preschool again for the second year because it was so hard last year. But beyond the freedom that it gave us to go to preschool, beyond like the finance element of it, there was this other comfort that we felt knowing that this program had our back. And so the list of schools that they had available, I just felt more comfortable than I had in previous times.

Miller: What has it meant financially that right now, preschool for your daughter, for your family, is free?

Avena: Well, our income is pretty good. We were able to get into a good preschool last year. What looked like a good preschool. Several of them. But we weren’t able to get into that great school. And what is a good preschool for a lot of kids who are neurotypical is very different than what is a good school for neurodiverse kids. So those needs are often higher and can only be served in like a very high quality school, which I’m really happy to say are the schools that I’ve seen from Portland Preschool for All.

Miller: Arianna Avena, thanks very much.


Leslee Barnes, I want to go back to you. How big is the demand right now for available preschool spots and available Preschool for All spots. Just broadly, what are those two numbers like?

Barnes: Last year, I said we had about 1,400 spots. We had over 2,500 people apply. So within that, of course, you can see where everyone wouldn’t get in. And so again, as we’re talking about who’s applying, we are looking at who needs it the most right now. We are talking about a universal system, but we are trying to weigh and balance the needs against what we have available.

Miller: How do you do that? Is there means testing, for example?

Barnes: There isn’t a means test, but there is a very complicated algorithm that we use. It actually has some kind of prize behind it and I can get you all the detail. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot of factors in how someone gets in - who they’re applying for, how many other people are applying. And there’s a lot of things that kind of gets you in or out.

Miller: So you mentioned that about 1,400 kids right now are in Preschool for All slots, somewhere in various centers. Do you have a sense for how many of those were already in existence before Preschool for All came on the scene and made those slots free?

Barnes: I do. I don’t have the number in front of me, but I’ll say it to you like this. So, one of the things that we talked about earlier, there’s people that are already in business, these small business owners. And so we don’t want to come on the scene and purchase your slots and then your existing families get kicked out. We don’t want people to lose their current availability. So for the first year, we’re saying those kids get to stay in and then next year, we have more slots. We also know that about 20% of our providers are expanding into new slots. The slots that you see represented at schools are new for the most part.

So PPS (Portland Public Schools) - those are new slots, those folks did not have that investment before. And so you’ll see more of that. But I think really we want to contract with people that are existing, vetted, have a reputation in the community. So how do we stabilize them by purchasing slots from them? We may not buy all their slots, but we want them to make that opportunity available to those families.

Miller: This is an important point because of one of the critiques I’ve seen. Willamette Week had a cover article about this that I bet a lot of listeners saw and the implication was, wait a minute, I thought we were going to get these new slots. So why are something like half of the Preschool for All slots places that were already up and running? And it makes sense. You don’t want to kick people out if they’re happily out of school. But what was the thinking in terms of working with existing locations, as opposed to really having a laser focus on creating new ones?

Barnes: So imagine this. Imagine we come on the scene and we just contract all new slots of people that have not been in business, don’t have a licensed history. And then something happens there. Then you’d be hearing another story about, “why did they give all these slots to these people that aren’t vetted and don’t have a reputation?”

Miller: We would absolutely do that conversation [Laughter].

Barnes: That’s exactly what would happen. And so of course, we want to support and stabilize them, but we do want to talk to folks that already have…Again, we also know too, there’s information about new businesses. How long do they stay in business? Entrepreneurship is unstable. So we don’t want to necessarily just connect with someone that just decided, “I want to do preschool with kids this year.” The parents would ask us, “So what did you do to find out? We don’t know anything about those folks.”


So our first set of folks are gonna be people [where] this is a profession. I want to remind people that we just don’t want anybody working with our youngest citizens. We want someone that can navigate licensing, that can hire folks. So, I mean, that’s some of the key [requirements]. I don’t think people would really want us to do that. But there will be opportunities for community-based organizations, right? And then it’s like, how do we support them and support in their community? How could they hire teachers as we look at workforce to come in and operate these kinds of programs? So they’ll be multi-tiered the way we bring in these new places.

Miller: That makes sense as you’re describing it. But it also makes me realize that on some level, the easier to ramp-up growth is happening now and sort of the vetted people, the experienced people, you start with them and build that up. But it does make me think that in order for you to succeed, for us to succeed as a county, because it’s us, and with 12,000 free spots in seven years, the clock is ticking, that some of the harder work is still ahead of you. What do you see as just the challenges of that ramp-up in the coming years?

Barnes: It is the folks who have the entrepreneurial bone that want to do that. Then it’s like, how do we bring on community-based organizations that aren’t early learning providers? Again, we just don’t want anyone…we want to support them and how do they think about bringing on staff? How do they design these kinds of programs?

Miller: Abdisalan Muse and Dee Hayward are here from CAIROPDX, the Center for African Immigrants and Refugees. Abdisalan, first. [You are] the deputy executive director of the nonprofit. Why did you decide that your nonprofit should get involved in childcare?

Abdisalan Muse: It all began for us when the Disparity academic report was published back in 2015. And as a result of that, we learned that our community, particularly underserved populations, African immigrant refugee population, need a preschool program. Prior to that, they didn’t have any preschool program directed at them at all. And then we decided to institute one and develop one and that’s how CAIRO was founded, in response to the community needs and the disparity.

And then we decided to go ahead and build a preschool program. We started the first one back in 2017 at David Douglas School District. And then we expanded to where we have right now, five preschool programs. Three of them are Preschool Promise and two of them are Preschool for All Multnomah County. And since we started [the] preschool program, we’ve graduated close to 150 preschoolers.


Miller: So Dee Hayward, can you give us a sense for the services you provide?

Dee Hayward: Yeah. We have five classrooms, as Abdi mentioned earlier. We have two funders: Preschool Promise and Preschool for All. I like what Leslee just mentioned. She said that parents don’t care, Preschool Promise or Preschool for All. I really like that statement because they got really mixed up, like I want your classroom because belong to Preschool for All. We have two classrooms there and we have another three classrooms that Preschool Promise give us funding to run.

We lucky to be part of Preschool for All that allow us to provide high quality program here. The funding is great. It allow us to create a program, how we aim to be from year 2016, that we first started our first classroom and it got developed more and more. We try to use every penny that we got from the funder to give it to the community that we serve.

Also when I heard Arianna’s story as well. We have so many special needs in our classroom right now. Back then, about two to three years ago, I worked with a different organization. When we had special needs children in our classroom, we didn’t have funding support. We just have to try to find a way to help our staff.

Miller: Meaning there wasn’t funding for specialists to help out?

Hayward: Yeah, we have to partner with my early intervention program to try to find additional staff.

Miller: How is it different now?

Hayward: It’s different now because Preschool for All provides us inclusion funding. So we allow us to hire extra staff. So that’s from Inclusion Fund. So we have more people to provide observation, the children especially, help them join a group, provide safety for the children and maintain high quality programs. So the teacher won’t get burned out.

Miller: What do you think all this means for parents and their kids?

Hayward: It’s means a lot. We got really positive feedback from the parents who have children with special needs and they are really impressed. And before we even ask for funding or additional funding from Inclusion Fund, we have to make sure that we got feedback from the parent that, are we doing a good job with your child? If we don’t have that, then we don’t feel comfortable asking for money because we feel like, are we doing what we can and [do] we deserve the funding that have been given to give it to the families?

Miller: Abdisalan Muse, how much can you expand? You’ve obviously already expanded in the last two years. But if this is going to work, as we’ve been talking about [with] everybody, there has to be just massive expansion all over the county. How much more can you do?

Muse: I think we’ve been trying to partner with local school districts. Thanks to David Douglas, Reynolds, Portland Public Schools, Beaverton School District, Hillsboro School District. We’ve been partnering with those school districts and they’ve been extremely helpful, along with our foundations and that has been supporting us. And we have learned that the best way to do right now is perhaps to look into buildings where we could purchase a new building, our own, where we could provide Preschool for All, four or five classes. That is basically what we’re working on right now.

We’ve seen a lot of waitlist. We’ve seen a lot of demand. Every year we’ve seen parents coming to us because of the cultural responsive services that we provide to them. It’s been really amazing and we’re working on it right now as we speak.

Miller: Are there enough bilingual, bicultural teachers for you to find to actually ramp-up like that?

Muse: It’s been a struggle. The workforce has been very challenging, finding bilingual bicultural individuals who look [like] the very children that we are servicing...

Miller: Which was one of the big points that you said. That’s what set you off on this in 2016.

Muse: Absolutely. We’re lucky to find those folks and we get it. And at times, it is very challenging bringing those folks. So we’re currently working with a local institution where we’re working on building a grow-your-own kind of a thing, where we could develop some kind of a pipe line and recruit a lot of folks who are interested in and have a passion for teaching. So that they can basically become a teacher freelance and provide services to the community.

Miller: Abdisalan Muse and Dee Hayward, thanks very much. They joined us from CAIROPDX.


We’re joined now by Mary King, professor emerita of economics at Portland State University. Mary, it’s good to have you back on Think Out Loud.

Mary King: Good to be here. Thank you.

Miller: How did you get interested in studying childcare or preschools, from an economics perspective?

King: Economists love early childhood programs. We think they’re fantastic. They’re sort of one of the silver bullets of public policy. You can accomplish so many things with early childhood education. They’re probably our best economic development policy, or one of them, of a short list. They’re a two generation anti-poverty strategy. They’re good for reducing gender disparities, racial disparities, class disparities. They’re the best thing you can do for increasing high school graduation rates and incomes. Once kids get in early childhood…if you can only intervene in one place, it should be early childhood and that’s so misunderstood. People just don’t get that, that everything starts there.

Miller: What about the flip side? What are the societal repercussions in a society that doesn’t value, that doesn’t invest in, that doesn’t provide accessible, affordable quality young education, early childhood education?

King: We waste human potential. I mean, we waste people. Early childhood is about public investment in people and we do far too little of it. There’s a huge return. People only think about investing in highways and things like that. But investing in people is enormous. And just from a cold blooded perspective - if you don’t even care that we’re wasting people, but you wanna reduce incarceration rates on employment, substance abuse, early child bearing, if you want to grow your tax base, have a more inclusive economy, send more people to college, you should invest in early childhood education. That’s where it happens. That’s where brains are exploding.

Miller: Why do you think we’re so bad at it then?

King: I have many theories about this, but we are too market oriented. We do not think about the power of public investment. The return on so many public investments is so much higher than what anybody’s getting by investing in another, I don’t know, watch that will tell you if it’s your birthday or not. It’s a tremendous waste of resources that we spend so little in the public sector and so much in the private [sector].

Miller: Let’s take a comment from our audience. What’s your name? And go ahead.

Audience Member: Hi. Yeah, my name is Courtney Verna. I have a question for Mary. You mentioned that investing in early childhood has poverty reduction, like multigenerational. So I’m thinking that you’re hinting at the parents and maybe particularly mothers. What are some of the benefits that we see, particularly for mothers and maybe even grandmothers as well, when we invest in early childhood and childcare?

King: That’s one of the advantages that hits, boom right away, in this investment - more women need and want to work more and to get more training and they cannot do it in this country because we don’t invest in childcare and early childhood education. And we are falling behind in terms of women’s labor force participation, which is not just like, “oh, that’s obviously a good thing,” but, no, people need and want to work. Families are struggling and they cannot do it. They cannot afford childcare. Certainly, they can’t afford the kind of high quality, multifaceted programming like Preschool for All, where you get all kinds of family choice about schedule, about cultural approach, about language, all kinds of things. Nobody can afford it. But I’m sorry, I digress.

[If] women can go to work more, they earn more over their lifetimes, they’re less poor in old age. And there’s tremendous women’s poverty and old age and there’s tremendous women’s poverty in single parent families. One in four kids is being raised by a single mother. What is she supposed to do? You really have to have childcare and it ought to be great.

I just have to put one plug in, which is, we do have the best program in the country. If you study what’s available out there, the project that Preschool For All is on is better than any other.

Miller: Why do you say that?

King: Because they have looked at best practices in terms of what gets called mixed delivery in-home, schools, centers because they are being really intentional about what is the best fit for families. They are thinking about what schedules people need because they are investing in the workforce and that’s tremendously needed. Preschool teachers earn half what kindergarten teachers earn. And most people don’t think kindergarten teachers earn a lot of money. So people who love this work can’t afford to stay in it. They leave. Six out of seven people with a college degree in the Portland metro area in early childhood do not work with young children. They have invested in a strong interest. They can’t afford it.

Miller: What do they do instead?

King: Well, the biggest thing they do is they go into K-12. They have benefits, they have a steady salary and they are lost to our young children.

Miller: So let’s turn to this because this is a question of the pipeline of early education educators. Jacqueline Mayorga Rivera is with us, college navigator for early childhood education at Mount Hood Community College. Welcome to the show.

Jacqueline Mayorga Rivera: Thank you for having me.

Miller: What does it mean to be a college navigator?

Mayorga Rivera: So my position is funded through Preschool for All. This role was just created last year. I’ve been at my position for one year now. And it’s there for outreach and retention. So [in] my role, I go out into the community and I tell folks about the programs that we offer at Mount Hood Community College, specifically in early childhood. And then once we get students there, my role is to make sure that they stay and that they are successful and that they graduate. There’s so much that partakes in all of that. We help students get their criminal background checks done. So by the time our students graduate, they are ready to start working.

Part of our program is a co-op. The co-op is to get students hands-on experience in an early childhood setting. So there are students that are already working there. So we are in an early childhood setting. So we partner up with their facility and we make sure that they are qualified mentor teachers so that they can fulfill their co-op requirement to graduate. We want them to graduate with experience and if they’re currently already working there, we want to enhance their experience.

Miller: Is it your role, your job, to encourage people who aren’t sure what they want to do to think about a career in early child education? Or, is it to say, “hey, young person, you’ve shown interest in this, I’m gonna help you succeed in the path you’ve already chosen?”

Mayorga Rivera: It’s both. Right now, since I’ve been in the position a year, we were trying to figure out where we wanted to focus in this past year. I focus with the community, with folks who are already working in the field and with preschools who do not want to lose their staff as these standards are raising. Because we wanna have preschool access for all of the children in Multnomah County, we also need to make sure that we have qualified staff members to fill these positions at these preschools. So there’s a lot of facilities that are actually reaching out to us and are like, “Hey, I don’t wanna lose my staff. My staff has great experience, but we’re working with Preschool for All and we want to meet their standards. So what can we do to get our students where they need to be?”

Miller: As you just heard from Mary King, six out of seven people who get a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education don’t end up working at preschools. Many of them, she says, go to K-12 education. Do you share that stat with the students you’re working with?

Mayorga Rivera: Yes, we also share the fact that Preschool for All is raising their salaries. So it incentivizes them to get more education. So for example, if a person has their Associate’s degree, which is what we offer, they earn the same amount as a kindergarten teacher. And if they own a Bachelor’s degree it’s significantly more than that.

Miller: So is all of that working? I mean, when you talk about how much more they can earn, do you find there’s more interest in having people pursue this as a career?

Mayorga Rivera: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of interest in the field as I’ve seen just talk, going out and talking to the community. The biggest concern is making sure that they’re able to take care of themselves and their families. And by sharing this information that we’re raising the bar on how much you get paid so that you’re able to do what you love and that you’re able to live the life that you want. And that’s really helping out. I mean, there’s so many people that are passionate about this field, but that’s what’s been holding them back.

Miller: How would you describe the gender breakdown of your students?

Mayorga Rivera: Mostly female. Right now, in our classes for this term, we have one male student out of 56.

Miller: OK. I was asking because I walked into this room right before the show started and we’ve done, I don’t know, dozens and dozens and dozens of shows in front of audiences all over the state about so many different topics over the last dozen years. And this has the highest percentage of women or women-identifying, presenting, people out of almost any show I can remember. And I mentioned this, Leslee Barnes, to you. I said, “are you surprised?” And you said “no.”

I’m in my forties now. It’s not like I’m naive about our society’s gender norms and gender expectations and the overwhelming amount of child rearing and sort of social work and family work that women do in this country as opposed to men. But it’s still really dispiriting to sort of see it and to think we’re having a public policy conversation here, and there are almost no men who are involved in the conversation. What do we do with that?

Barnes: Call it out like you just did. And it’s something that this work has always been thought of as women’s work, People of Color’s work, right? And that it didn’t pay well. So why would a man want to do it? It’s an extension of mothering. That’s what most people think about. So I think there will have to be intentional work to welcome men and say “we want you here.”

Miller: Is that something that you’re trying to do?

Barnes: Yeah, it’s something our staff engaged in, something we call Equity Focus Fridays. And we actually had a conversation about men in the workforce as like, did you think about this and there’s other efforts and other kids he needs to bring men in. What does that look like? What does it mean to young boys to see men in the classroom, to see men playing with a doll? You know, what does that mean and how that could impact them. So it is something we’re talking about.

Miller: What can your office do to make it more likely that new centers that are opening up are going to survive, are going to last two years, last 20 years?

Barnes: I think one of the investments that we made early on is thinking about business. So that was really the thing that stood out when COVID came. I was working at the state and helping people navigate, what does it mean that my staff need to get unemployment? What does it mean to have certain policies? So I think it’s like the business acumen and navigating that. Our partners with a MESO really help folks think about themselves as a business and what it looks like to hire people. What are your hiring practices? Because you can pay someone very well but if you’re not a good employer, they’re not going to stay. And so what does it look like to be a strong employer?

And then what happens in our field too, is because we’re short staffed - I’m sure some of you guys know this in this room - someone quits and now you get an automatic promotion and no one has prepared you for that because we have to stay in ratio. You have licensing and all those things, which means you have to have a certain number of adults. And so what happens is you have people that really have not been prepared to operate these businesses. They were teachers in the classroom, but it doesn’t mean they know how to mentor, right? Or lead staff. And so there’s another piece of skill set that needs to occur to keep people in here because we’re burning people out by sticking them in places they’re not ready for and then they go work at Walmart where they could make the same or more. How do we keep them in there because we need them to grow up in the field to mentor the folks that are coming?

So that’s another part of not just bringing in these people, but how do we maintain the people that aren’t here that want to stay?

Miller: What’s your approach to suspensions or expulsions? It’s something that we heard earlier. It’s an important point and I didn’t want to miss it.

Barnes: So the research has shown that suspension and expulsion happens disproportionately for Black and Brown children, especially in early childhood programs. Now, the majority of early childhood programs are privately-owned. And so it was a way because you didn’t have highly skilled teachers or folks that could work with children with behaviors. You just said they’re not a good fit and you excluded them.

Miller: We wish we could keep him, but he’s too disruptive…and it’s understandable...

Barnes: It can be. But a lot of the things that are happening are typical child behavior. So we’re not talking about things outside the norm. And so we got to skill up folks. I talked to the staff about, there’s a heart in mind that all the training in the world will not necessarily get you there. You are the person for the job, if the child comes to the door, if they’re Preschool for All child. And so we’re going to help you maintain that slot.

That’s why we talk about inclusion funds. For example, we talk about MESO, right? If the director is wearing so many hats and doesn’t hire, people burn out. So they’re certainly not going to take a child that’s going to run that teacher they just hired out the door. So what does it look like to really come around and support them in that? Because that particular behavior of expulsion really sets a child on a trajectory. They used to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s called the preschool-to-prison pipeline now because children that are expelled from preschool are on a trajectory. They already feel like they have already failed and they’re three years old. So what does that look like as they move throughout the system?

We want to make sure parents know what we talk about when we’re talking about exposure. We want to make sure we hear from parents, we want to support, we don’t want to overwhelm them if they have a lot of children with behaviors. That’s a lot because in the past, they were private entrepreneurs that could welcome and kick out anyone they wanted. The state is also making that an illegal practice. So we’re trying to prepare people for something that’s already going to be a law in 2025. We want to make sure those children have the best start and that we’re supporting that child.

Miller: Let’s take another comment or question from the audience. Go ahead.

Audience Member: I am Angie Garcia, I am the owner of Escuela Viva and I’ve been in operation for 20 years. And one of the questions that you asked is like, how are we gonna get there? How are we gonna serve all these children? There’s one really important part that we haven’t discussed and you also asked how men can be evolved. And I think this is part of it. There is a real struggle to get facilities that are affordable, that landlords are actually practicing in a way that helps support these businesses be successful. And then even if you find a building, the amount of money it costs to renovate that building, maybe the occupancy isn’t what it needs to be. Those SDC fees, which are system development charges, are astronomical. And so it just really prices out small providers like us who want to expand. But yet there are many barriers to doing that. So facilities is a huge barrier. If we’re gonna find spots for all of these children, we really have to put a really close eye on policies and things that are barriers to providers moving into spaces.


Miller: Thanks for that.

Barnes: So that initial investment in thinking about facilities that Angie talked about is kind of like sneak peek of our Facilities Fund. We’ll have a Facilities Fund that’ll come on board this next year. We’ll have $16 million this year to talk about not just the physical building, but I know so many stories like people are trying to navigate this on their own, find the right architect. There’s a PBOT, something happens, the state is not in a line with the city. And so we’re really talking about navigation so they don’t make expensive mistakes.

We’ll be making sure if you’re interested…we’ll send out an interest form pretty soon so that people that have projects can get some money to do that. Because even though they don’t have that money, we have 20% of our providers that expanded without this investment just because they were stable. I mean, it’s about helping them think about what a good looking lease looks like. So they don’t sign something that gets them in a situation that isn’t great for their business. What is a good investment? How do you find a place that has the amount of square footage, toilets, all those things? Because I’ve seen in my time in supporting providers over my career, really expensive kinds of mistakes. We don’t want that. It’s not just money to have the brick and mortar, but it’s also the navigation and the experts to help you navigate that.

Miller: Leslee Barnes, thank you very much.

Barnes: Thank you.


Miller: Leslee Barnes is the director of the Preschool & Early Learning Division at Multnomah County. We also heard earlier from Mary King, professor emerita of economics at Portland State University.

Thanks to all the folks here at Multnomah County’s preschool and early learning division who helped series producer Allison Frost put all the puzzle pieces together for today. And a big thanks to the Oregon Community Foundation for funding this whole series of shows around Oregon focused on solutions.

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