By Nancy Tannler

Voters in Multnomah County will decide on Preschool for All, Ballot Measure 26-214 in November. Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, District 3, championed this cause along with her staff and other organizations.

“This measure is the culmination of eight years of dedicated work and advocacy by members of our community,” Vega Pederson said.

There are 60 programs across the country that have invested in large-scale, publicly funded preschool programs. Her hope is that Multnomah County will be the next jurisdiction to step up for children and families.

At a Zoom meeting, Vega Pederson responded to the most pertinent question, “Why does this matter,” especially if a person doesn’t have children.

She related it to her own personal experience. Vega Pederson is of Mexican-American heritage and she witnessed how difficult it was for her mother to pursue a career after she had children, especially since there were limited preschool options.

It is a matter of fact that the early years of a child’s life are crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development. Economists estimate that the rate of return for funding high-quality preschool ranges between $7 and $10 for every dollar invested. This has a positive societal impact that reaches beyond the individuals and the family.

Unfortunately, a majority of children living in Multnomah County do not have access to high-quality preschool.

66 percent of three and four-year old children living here are of Hispanic/Latino, African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Native or Alaska Native, Asian or Slavic race, ethnicity or ancestry. They are also living below the Self-Sufficiency Standard, meaning they are unable to meet their basic needs without assistance.

Oregon is the fourth least affordable state when it comes to preschool. State and federal funding provide preschool for only those families in deepest poverty, reaching only 15 percent of the families. A single parent family at the median income typically spends 41 percent of their take-home wage on childcare or preschool.

In the fall of 2018, Commissioner Vega Pederson convened a coalition of 100 leaders from the public, private and social sectors to form a task force and work groups. They worked together to formalize a recommendation for a preschool system in Multnomah County.

Groundwork for the recommendation was already in progress with programs like Preschool Now and Early Learning Multnomah (ELM) at the United Way of Columbia-Willamette. Since 2014, they have been working to ensure that the needs and values of communities of color were prioritized for these programs.

These pilot programs joined forces with the nonprofit Social Venture Partners Portland (SVP) and others to determine where gaps still existed and what was required to close them. Together, they assembled the Preschool for All Project and presented their report to Multnomah County in June of this year.

The challenges the work groups were asked to address included: making preschool accessible to people of color and those experiencing poverty who don’t qualify for public supports; ensure better pay for preschool teachers; provide more preschool classrooms and facilities; and plan a connected system that supports and ensures quality preschool programs.

There is a shortage of early childhood educators in part due to low wages. This measure would raise preschool teacher salaries to be comparable with local kindergarten teacher salaries.

Vega Pederson believes the program they have designed will be the best in the nation and offer parents a more flexible schedule so they don’t have to commit to full time preschool.

Another unique innovation is that not all preschool locations will be determined by the school district.

Measure 26-214 will open up other facilities such as homes, churches, schools, community centers and new builds (as long as they meet the standards set by the county including safety, wages, curriculum, health, cleanliness etc.) It is anticipated that 7,000 new preschool slots will open up by 2026.

To ensure the public that Preschool for All meets these standards, it will be subject to independent performance audits. The criteria for these audits has not been determined yet, but will be clarified as things move forward.

If approved, a 1.5 percent tax will be applied to taxable income for single earners making more than $125,000 and $200,000 for joint filers. The tax will fund tuition-free, high-quality preschool for all children who are three or four years old and who reside in Multnomah County. This tax will go into effect January 2021.

Vega Pederson acknowledges that a lot is being asked of people right now. However this straightforward, voting yes on Ballot Measure 26-214 levels the playing field, giving children of color and other marginalized kids an opportunity to excel and accomplish goals that will eventually provide them with the ability to make a living wage.