Multnomah County passed a measure that gives the county’s child care system an extra $200 million in funding each year. Here's how.
In November, voters in Oregon’s Multnomah County approved the creation of a universal preschool program that guarantees free care for every three- and four-year-old in the county.
Through a tax on the county’s richest residents, the program gives a massive funding boost to the child care sector — to the tune of about $200 million each year.
As the program rolls out over the coming years, the county will see pay raises for teachers, career-long professional training, new jobs, and free access to quality child care for every family in the county.
Very few places in the US have ever had a program like this, and fewer still can credit the achievement to a mass movement of regular citizens. It got on the ballot due to Universal Preschool Now (UP NOW), a coalition of local child care workers, parents, community advocates and labor organizations.
For the rest of the country, UP NOW offers hope that stable, long-term support for child care and early education is possible — and that people like you can get it done.
What Universal preschool does for children, families and workers
When we say “universal preschool,” what do we mean? Where does a program like this come from, and who does it help? Let’s start by breaking it all down.
Preschool and pre-K are often used interchangeably, but they usually mean early care and education for children under five. In the context of Multnomah County, this new program is for three- and four-year olds.
Universal means anybody in the county can use the program, and it’s free for everybody.
Here are some of the biggest ways this new approach to early education helps children, families, and child care workers:
• Giving more children a better start: The program will create an estimated 15,000 additional child care slots by 2030, and as it launches, it prioritizes giving care to children in disadvantaged and underserved areas of the county. Early childhood care and education has consistently been shown to give profound, lifelong benefits — especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
• Making child care a career: The program includes money for continual professional training for the county’s child care workers, creating development and learning opportunities that make it more appealing to make a career out of early education. It also creates an estimated 2,300 jobs in early education within the county.
• Easing the strain on families: Making preschool free for everyone helps eliminate one of the biggest budgeting burdens facing American families today, and gives parents more time for their own careers and lives. Under the pandemic, the need for parents to care for children at home has already pushed millions out of the labor force, and the vast majority of them have been women.
• Paying workers what they deserve: The annual salary for early educators in Oregon is estimated to be around $24,000, which is under the state’s poverty line. Universal preschool recognizes the value of early educators by funding a significant pay increase: Assistant preschool teachers would earn just under $56,000 per year, and lead preschool teachers would earn around $74,000 per year.
Will Layng, Executive Director of Portland Jobs with Justice, believes this pay increase will help solve the major issue of high staff turnover rates within the child care sector. “Providers see the rate of staff turnover, and they know it’s not their fault. This funding mechanism is our chance to change that,” he says.
How to get the money that child care deserves
So, you might ask, who pays for all this?
Well, in Multnomah County, the money for better child care comes from people who have money to spare.
Measure 26-214 creates a small tax on the richest residents in the county: Individuals earning more than $125,000 a year, or households earning more than $200,000. This tax won’t apply to 92 percent of the 750,000 people living in Multnomah County — and it will generate an estimated $200 million each year to fund universal Pre-K.
Emily Golden-Fields is a member of the Portland Association of Teachers and the Portland DSA, who was involved in the early stages of the UP NOW campaign. She says devising this concrete funding solution was a critical launch point for the movement.
“The people paying for this pay very little, and they can afford it. And it creates a brand new right to child care, it creates jobs, and benefits so many families in the county,” Emily says. “As soon as that comes to fruition, people get really energised — like, ‘Wow, you can create that much, from just this tiny tax on only the wealthiest people?’ It’s a really powerful thing.”
People like you made universal preschool possible
How do you go from wanting better early education, to really making it happen? Let’s look at the key ingredients and processes that helped UP NOW take shape.
• A concrete solution: For UP NOW, having their funding model made the idea feel more real, more achievable. The idea for this revenue model dates to 2017, when early education advocates in the county developed it with the Portland DSA.
“When we were negotiating with Multnomah County, it was a really powerful thing to propose this measure, and show that we already had the funding taken care of,” Emily says.
• Navigating the lawmaking: Each state in the US has a different process through which movements like this turn into real, tangible policy. Oregon’s is simpler than some — at the county level, citizens can submit an organized petition to the county elections board, which then must approve the measure to go out and gather signatures. About half of US states have a similar system, where citizens can write their own measures at the municipal or state level, gather signatures, and vote directly on their policies.
For UP NOW, the movement had five weeks to gather over 23,000 signatures to get on the November ballot — all while in the middle of a pandemic and social unrest. In that time, some 500 volunteers ended up with over 32,000 signatures.
• People to help — and lots of them: Movements like UP NOW need a lot of structure and helping hands. After merging with the parallel Preschool for All movement, the UP NOW campaign was a coalition of 100 different groups and community organizations, including 10 labor organisations, the Portland DSA, and hundreds of parents, educators and child care workers. UP
But before it was UP NOW or Preschool for All, the movement started as conversations between people like you. People with children, people with two jobs, people sick of waiting for some else to do something about improving child care. Normal people.
Strong child care builds strong communities
Child care doesn’t exist in a bubble. When we talk about improving child care, we’re also talking about reliving a lot of other inequalities that got worse during the pandemic.
As it rolls out over the next 10 years, here’s how Multnomah County’s Universal Preschool program aims to address other major social and civil issues in the community:
Racial justice: The significant pay raises in the Universal Preschool program goes to a workforce where minority child care workers are often paid less than white colleagues for the same job. In the first stages, the program will prioritize providing free care to minority communities in Multnomah County, who have historically been hit hardest by the lack of affordable child care.
Gender equity: Boosting funds for child care means improving the conditions for a workforce that is 95 percent women. Free access to child care also relieves pressure on families to stay home to care for children — a decision which disproportionately keeps women out of the workforce.
Economic opportunity: While all families are eligible for free care between 9 AM and 3 PM, lower-income parents will also have the option for free care in the early morning and late afternoon. Universal Preschool offers the greatest benefit to working families, who have the fewest options for affordable child care.
The pandemic and the future of child care
While the push for universal Pre-K in Multnomah County precedes the pandemic, this year made it clear just how desperately it’s needed.
Emily von Gilbert, a Coalition Coordinator for UP NOW, believes this year has significantly boosted public support for movements like this.
“Privately-funded childcare has been absolutely obliterated by the effects of the pandemic, and made the case for the need for stable, public funding better than we ever could have,” Emily says. “Parents, at home with their kids while trying to also do their jobs, could clearly see the value of the childcare workforce, and with this campaign they were able to take concrete steps to help win this measure,” she wrote in an email.
What we can learn from UP NOW
The success of UP NOW in Oregon is real-life proof that we can build a healthier, stronger and fairer future for child care and early education.
We have the money for better child care. Just about everybody wants to make child care better, and we can get it done.
To the rest of the country, Emily Golden-Fields says that UP NOW’s victory is a reminder that these movements start with regular people — with child care workers, with community organizers, and with parents.
“People want to live in a society that takes care of each other. They want public programs, they want parks, they want preschools and child care,” Emily says.
“When you take away the lobbyists, the business community and the political rhetoric — when you just give the choice to people, they always want things that make their community better.”
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