By Don MacGillivray
Finding daycare and preschool for young children in Portland has always been difficult. This is especially true for families where affordability is an issue. And over the last few years, COVID-19 has made childcare even less available and more expensive.
Before the pandemic, there was only one preschool opening for every three toddlers. But with the pandemic many parents lost their employment, childcare businesses closed and in-person preschools declined significantly. Those that remained became more expensive with the need for additional staffing requirements and increases in salary. Enrollments were half of pre-pandemic levels. Wait lists expanded with the essential needs of parents with preschool aged children and the lack of programs.
The Oregon legislature recognized the need for change in 2021. HB 2073 was passed to provide the vitally needed resources and improvements for the preschool and daycare systems. Titled the “Employment Related Day Care” program, it streamlined the administration of early learning programs to ensure greater access and stability.
The Department of Early Learning and Care was established in January of this year. It also targeted Oregon’s most vulnerable low income families and people of color. The new program covers affordability, flexibility, income eligibility for all children and provides financial stability for childcare providers.
Childcare is also a concern for business. A lack of childcare has forced many single parent households to drop out of the workforce. Working parents must have affordable childcare for the economy to remain healthy.
A child’s years between birth and the age of five are the most important learning years of their entire lives according to many experts. This is when lifelong patterns of brain development and social behaviors are learned. In addition, preschool learning makes the transition to grade school easier and more effective.
The parents’ best intentions, while important, can’t provide the same level of early learning and the positive associations with other children. A reliable and affordable childcare system is crucial to economic strength and resiliency. The US is far behind other developed nations in the provision of early childhood education.
In November 2020, Multnomah County voted nearly two-to-one in support of ballot Measure 26-214 titled “Preschool for All.” It will create a year-round, universal preschool program that is culturally responsive and inclusive for all three- and four-year-old children. It will raise $105 million a year by taxing families with incomes above $200,000 and it will subsidize the cost of tuition for 7,000 children by 2026. It is directed by the Multnomah County Department of Human Services and the program is free.
Due to narrow profit margins and low wages, early childhood education has always suffered from heavy employee turnover. Over the last two years the number of licensed preschool providers in Multnomah County dropped from about 1,200 to 800. Another 300-600 new preschool classrooms will be needed to implement goals of the new program. While more commercial space is becoming more available for the needed classrooms, increasing rents are making this transition difficult.
This year there will be 500 new preschool seats available and the number of slots will grow each year until the program reaches universal access for all in 2030. Initially, those children with the least access to early learning will be prioritized. This includes children of color, families with low incomes and those with learning difficulties.
Applications for fall have now closed and enrollment decisions will be announced this month.
In addition, the Portland Public School’s Head Start program serves 760 low-income, three- and four-year-old children. The goal of Head Start is to prepare young children for successful transitions to kindergarten and beyond by building social competence and developing their school readiness skills. The program allows children to grow and thrive in a supportive, nurturing environment with the opportunity for optimum growth and development. Families and children are provided with learning skills, health and nutrition. They emphasize school readiness and self-sufficiency through partnerships with individuals and in the community.
Head Start is available through the following Portland schools: Sacajawea, Applegate, Clarendon Early Learning Academy, Creston Annex, Grout, Jason Lee, Kelly Center, Sitton and Whitman.
In addition to the public resources dedicated to early childhood development there is the “Spark” program that is a Quality Recognition and Improvement System. It is a voluntary program designed to support and recognize high quality early childhood care programs. It includes some of the following benefits: 1) creating attached, supportive relationships with qualified caregivers and teachers, 2) helping to provide appropriate environments for each child, 3) encouraging experiences that will support a child’s development and 4) developing strong partnerships between families and educators.
The recent programs created by the State of Oregon and Multnomah County are likely to have an excellent impact on the lives of our future citizens and their families. This will correct a major deficiency of Oregon’s educational system and it has the potential of becoming a national model.
Photo by Preschool for All Multnomah County.