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A coalition says it is crafting a November ballot measure. Work on childcare is also happening in Salem.

COURTESY PHOTO: ADELANTE MUJERES - Students graduate from kindergarten in Cornelius.A coalition of Washington County early childhood education and care providers say they are crafting a November ballot measure to follow a neighboring county's example and fund universal pre-kindergarten.

Multnomah County voters in 2020 approved a 2.3% tax on taxable income over $125,000 and $200,000, and a 3.8% tax on income over $250,000 and $400,000, to fund universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in Oregon's most populous county.

Washington County is Oregon's second-most populous county, with about 15,000 residents between the ages of 3 and 4, according to Bridget Cooke, executive director of Forest Grove-based nonprofit Adelante Mujeres.

Of those children, Cooke said about 80% don't have access to affordable preschool.

Coverage from state and federally-funded programs ranges from 130% to 200% of the federal poverty line, and directors of early childhood education centers say those limits do not cover enough children nor provide enough funding to hire staff needed to empty waiting lists.

"The cost of living is making it very very challenging to qualify for state or federally subsidized child care. Two hundred percent is not adequate, because there are still a lot of families $2,000 over the limit who can't begin to be able to afford childcare," Cooke said.

While she said Adelante Mujeres is committed to pushing for universal pre-K in Washington County, Cooke added, "We haven't decided yet what our funding mechanism is going to be. We will be deciding very soon and looking at a variety of options."

The entire system is waiting on the Build Back Better Act. While stalled in the Senate, where moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia publicly opposes the legislation and none of the chamber's 50 Republicans appears to be supportive, a version of President Joe Biden's signature legislation that passed the House last year includes subsidies to pay for early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds and support for wage increases for childcare providers.

Last July, Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill to create a new Department of Early Learning and Care, combining the division of the Department of Education and parts of the Department of Human Services into a full-fledged state department dedicated to the childcare system. In her Feb. 3 State of the State Speech Feb. 3, Brown said she is working with the Legislature to pass an additional $100 this session to fund the new department and expand eligibility for assistance. Unlike a unified public school systems, the childcare system is a mix of public schools, nonprofits and private corporations relying on state and federal support and private tuition.COURTESY PHOTO: ADELANTE MUJERES - Students laugh in a preschool class.

House Bill 4005 would delay the official formation of the department until July 2023. The bill was introduced on behalf of the House Early Childhood Committee, which is considering it this week.

"Every county in the state has a childcare desert. Our early learning structure is struggling to survive," said state Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, a former schoolteacher who sits on the Early Childhood Committee. "One of our priorities this session is to make sure that department has what it needs to set up. We are going to be investing, especially in the workforce."

One challenge of the new department will be to absorb the state-funded, employment-related daycare subsidy program, which provides assistance to families with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty line, or $3,660 for a family of three.

Donalda Donaldson is executive director of the Oregon Child Development Coalition, which oversees 3,500 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old across 14 counties. She told Pamplin Media Group that none of her centers take the employment-based subsidy and instead rely on annual state and federal grants.

"One of the benefits of universal preschool would be consistency of funding and assurance we will be offering the program," Donaldson said. "One of our biggest challenges is to be able to reimburse teachers so they have a livable wage."

The typical starting wage for educators at early learning centers in Oregon can be as low as $15 to $16 per hour. The universal preschool measure in Multnomah County aims to more than double that, up to about $37 per hour.

The rollout will take time, however. While the first 500 to 1,000 students in "Preschool for All" will start this September, the program is not expected to grow to become universal in scope until 2030.

In Washington County, the Oregon Child Development Coalition operates two centers in Cornelius and one in Hillsboro, offering state-funded pre-K, state-funded childcare, and a federally funded program for seasonal workers, all for free.

"With so many different funding streams, it is a challenge to fund every single program at the same level, so if we increase wages for one program, we attempt to increase for other programs as well," said Mandi Arellano, Washington County program director for the Oregon Child Development Coalition. "But we don't determine how much and how many slots the federal and state grants award us."

Through the new department, the state hopes to have more control over raising wages.

"There are two main ways the state can address wages: giving money to families through vouchers to take to providers of their choice or paying for slots in a program. Both have benefits. You have to have both," said Alyssa Chatterjee, director of the Early Learning Division. "One of the strengths of moving (employment-related daycare) over to new agency is we will be able to strategize both."

Chatterjee said the employment-related daycare subsidy currently reaches 17% of families who qualify.

"The program doesn't serve the majority of families eligible because it's not funded. Being tied to employment, it has a lot of barriers to access," Family Forward Executive Director Andrea Paluso said. "This was a system developed out of intentionally inefficient welfare reform."

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