Multnomah County voters can expect to see a measure for expanded preschool access on their ballot this November.
The move follows a report from the county's Preschool For All task force, led by County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
“What if every child had a preschool program that was right for them and every family could afford it?” Vega Pederson asked. “That was what we wanted to do.”
The report examined challenges like limited access to preschool and a shortage of educators and classrooms, and presented recommendations to solve problems, including new provider recruitment, partnerships with colleges and teacher salaries comparable to those of kindergarten teachers.
Vega Pederson said the estimated cost to implement all the report’s recommendations is between $150 million and $250 million. The proposed program would take years to get to full scale.
Since the report’s release in June 2019, two groups have formed to get the ball rolling. One group looked at implementation of the report’s recommendations, the other looked at how to fund the plan — and get voters involved in 2020.
Megan Irwin has been working on the Preschool for All policy with one of the committees. To start, the county needs to build up a system of providers and educators to teach kids.
“We’ve been doing that work to get a solid idea of how many folks we have available who can implement this program and how many we’ll need to bring on,” Irwin said.
According to the report, 103 people graduated from Multnomah County’s programs certifying early childhood teachers in 2016. Around 2,300 educators are needed for universal preschool throughout the county.
And it’s not just about quantity of educators. Vega Pederson said they want to hire a diverse workforce and keep them.
“We also want to make sure that people have the workforce supports and career development to help them become better teachers,” Vega Pederson said.
If passed, funds from the ballot measure would start a universal preschool system that includes home-based, school-based, center-based and Head Start affiliated programs. According to recent polling, Vega Pederson said the general public supports the idea.
“Seven out of 10 people that we talk to are supportive of early education and see the need for funding it for Multnomah County going forward,” Vega Pederson said.
The commissioner said she’ll use the polling data to help inform the financial package that ends up in front of voters later this year. A Preschool for All committee will also look at the amount included in the measure.
But there are still questions that need to be answered — like what organization would administer funds and oversee the program. The county is considering taking on the role.
Other cities around the country have taken similar steps to publicly fund preschool. Vega Pederson points to Seattle, where in 2018, voters passed an education levy that included $341 million for preschool expansion.
In Oregon, $200 million allotted to early education via the state’s Student Success Act will help Multnomah County, too. The funds produced from a new business tax will go toward more preschool slots, parent education and an Early Childhood Equity Fund.
Vega Pederson said the funds from the Student Success Act will pay for an additional 300–400 early education slots. But that’s just a start.
“There’s still a gap of 6,800 slots for 3- and 4-year-olds in Multnomah County,” Vega Pederson said. “So while the investment from the Student Success Act is wonderful to have, and it does take away some of the need, there’s still thousands of kids who are going to need the investment from Preschool for All.”
The measure is another addition to an already crowded ballot. Portland Public Schools and Metro are expected to ask voters to fund school modernizations and transportation, respectively.
“There's going to be so much happening, right?” Vega Pederson said. “We want to make sure that we're making a strong and clear case for early education.”