Frustrated with decades of inaction at the national and state level, residents of Multnomah County, Oregon put a measure on the ballot this past November to create a free, year-round, universal preschool program for all three and four year-olds in the county. Approval was resounding, the vote nearly two to one in support.
Despite years of compelling evidence for universal preschool as a powerful economic development strategy that improves educational outcomes while fighting poverty and inequality, as well as gender and racial disparities, the U.S. lags far behind many nations in the provision of early childhood education and care. But – unlike other desperate needs such as affordable housing and health care – early childhood education is relatively inexpensive, making it possible for a city or county to mount its own program.
The preschool model being created for the city of Portland, and the rest of Multnomah County, should set a new standard for public preschool programs in the U.S., meeting the needs of children, their families and preschool staff. To help children thrive and obtain the most from their later education, Multnomah County will work with a range of providers to offer a high quality program, in different languages and cultures, and in a variety of settings, including schools, centers, and family child care. The program will attain full universality within ten years, prioritizing the enrollment of children from communities of color and families with lower incomes in the early years as the program builds.
To ensure that the program works for families, they’ll also have a choice of schedules, including full and part-time, school year or year-round, and weekends as well as week days, for up to five days a week. All children may attend without cost for up to six hours a day, with ten hours a day free for families in the lower half of the income distribution.
To retain the skilled, experienced, dedicated – and almost entirely female – staff so critical to quality, teachers’ salaries will double the going rate, to equal those of kindergarten teachers. The wage floor for all classroom workers, including aides and assistant teachers, will be significantly above the minimum wage, starting at just under $20 an hour in the autumn of 2022 when the first children will be enrolled.
No public preschool system in the U.S. has yet paid a living wage to all staff members, despite cripplingly low levels of staff retention. Economist Catherine Weinberger has shown that, in the U.S., four of five employed women with college degrees in early childhood development and education do not work with young children. By contrast, high proportions of college graduates educated as nurses, accountants and others work in jobs that draw directly on their academic training.
Further, Multnomah County’s new universal preschool program will be funded by a county income tax levied on approximately eight percent of the county’s highest income households, addressing skyrocketing economic inequality and the forty-year concentration of income at the very top.
The Multnomah County ballot measure campaign was supported by an undeniable coalition of teachers, unions, organizations representing communities of color, civic and feminist groups, small business owners and environmental advocates– not to mention galvanized parents, child care workers, preschool providers, public health care workers, doctors, economists, school board members and elected officials. Two separate campaigns worked independently for years to prepare a ballot measure, emerging to find themselves aimed at the same election. The more ambitious was led by the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America while the other was headed by a philanthropy, called Social Venture Partners, working with an elected County Commissioner. The two campaigns were able to merge on their strongest combined program, after the bolder plan gathered thirty-two thousand signatures, more than enough to qualify for the ballot.
Key to our success, I believe, was creating a program that works for children, parents and workers. Too often in the U.S., fear of raising taxes has led to small, part-time and ill-paid programs serving only the least advantaged, and supported by a limited base of advocates for children from lower-income households. High quality, universal programs are not only more successful at improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged children, but enjoy the popularity necessary to sustaining funding into the future while allowing parents to work more hours or gain additional schooling.
This blog was contributed by Mary C. King who is Professor of Economics Emerita at Portland State University, Vice-President of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, Co-Chair of the Oregon Scholars Strategy Network and a founding board member of Family Forward Oregon. She has spent the past three years campaigning for universal preschool in Multnomah County, where voters decisively approved the creation of a free, year-round, full-day universal preschool program on November 3, 2021.