By Don MacGillivray

Housing costs, transportation, homelessness and poverty were the highest concerns from Oregonians surveyed in a recent poll conducted this fall by DHM Research. 

Other high priority issues were healthcare, jobs and the environment. Concern about education is usually high, but it is K-12 and colleges that are the priority concerns. 

The missing piece is the education of preschool children under five years of age. The most important part of a child’s development is the period from birth to the age of five. It sets the foundation for all future learning and life experiences. 

Oregon is the fourth least affordable state in the country making childcare for many of the 19,000 three-four year-old children in Multnomah County beyond their families financially capabilities. Government funding provides preschool for only 15% of these children. 

Today, almost half of all children in Oregon under the age of five live in low-income households. A variety of economic pressures often make quality early childhood education out of reach for many families, significantly lessening their chances for success in school. Many of Multnomah County’s preschool age children are more diverse than the general population and tend to live in the eastern third of Portland. 

Preschool is a child’s first formal learning environment; not daycare and it focuses on cognitive and social development through the stimulation of the child’s curiosity and imagination. Children learn through sharing toys, taking turns and interacting with each other. The classrooms are lively and bright with posters of the alphabet, maps, number tables and student artwork–interactive and stimulating to foster an exciting learning environment. Teacher-student ratios are closely monitored to ensure small class sizes. 

Despite increasing public interest in early childhood education, preschools are commonly private and expensive. It is unaffordable for most families due to economic pressures and a lack of governmental support. However, the evidence of its positive effects has prompted increasing government interest and action. 

Wilsonville company, Mentor Graphics operates a well-respected preschool open to both employees and the community. Strongly influenced by the municipal preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, infants and toddlers are seen as unique individuals who participate in relationships and their own learning. They are taught to respect others, to foster independence, to develop trusting relationships and cultural relevance by emphasizing the importance of social community. It is a constructive approach to learning based on the child’s interests and abilities. 

Last year, an Oregon legislative joint committee made policy recommendations about Student Success saying every child must have access to affordable, high-quality preschool programs before they enter primary school. 

Meanwhile, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All task force is chaired by District 3 Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and a coalition of thirty local leaders and organizations working to expand affordable, high quality preschool opportunities for children here. Over a hundred community members were involved in developing the recommendations for their report.

The Student Success Act (SSA) passed by Oregon’s legislature and was signed into law May 20, 2019. 

The SSA increases access to high-quality early learning programs like Head Start and Preschool Promise. It funds Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education in support of the development of young children diagnosed with disabilities. 

Beginning next year, 20 percent of the SSA funding (about $200 million) will be allocated to programs serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers. This will serve about 6,000 more children from birth-to-five by adding 1,200 slots in Early Head Start and 4,600 slots for Preschool Promise and Oregon Pre-kindergarten. 

Culturally-specific organizations will be able to reach underserved families with young children. Early Head Start provides early, intensive and comprehensive child development and family support services to low-income families with children under the age of three. 

The Head Start Program provides early childhood education to children from three to five years of age in low-income families. Children participate in a variety of educational activities, receive free health care and access to social services. 

The Early Learning Division is responsible for implementing investments. A Regional Stewardship Committee has been convened in Multnomah County including the Preschool for All taskforce and the Parent Accountability Council. 

The phase one report is due in December. By January, information about investments for Multnomah County will be available. Contact Molly Day at the United Way for more. (MollyD@UnitedWay-pdx.org) 

Oregon must continue this start in providing resources for equitable access to early care and education opportunities. 

Many localities throughout the United States have found a variety of ways to do this. Seattle, San Francisco and New York City have all successfully provided preschool to their four-year-old citizens. 

Quality child care and early education will raise student success rates and lead to improved employment outcomes.