County targets gaps in preschool access, funding
As presidential campaigns push for Medicare for All, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson is the driving force behind a Preschool for All initiative.
Concluding a nine-month task force review commissioned by Vega Pederson's office, a report released July 18 examines the landscape of current preschool offerings in the county, and offers recommendations on how to improve services and expand access to families in need.
The report provides a roadmap for making early childhood learning centers more affordable to parents, by using a "self-sufficiency" standard for income qualifications, rather than federal poverty guidelines, while also making preschool more accessible to more parents and families. Additionally, the report notes, more centers and classrooms are needed to adequately serve additional families.
Preschool isn't something that comes to mind when most people think about the roles and responsibilities of Multnomah County, but Vega Pederson said it should be.
"The investment in early childhood education is something I think aligns with the public health model," the county commissioner said, noting it's not far off from what Multnomah County currently does with the SUN schools system.
Vega Pederson suggested early learning programs can have substantial impacts on a child's long-term success. "This is part of the upstream investment necessary for good long-term public health," she said.
The task force stems partly from Vega Pederson's own passion for early childhood care, but she said it's also a product of "a person as an elected official looking at what the county needs."
She shared an anecdote about a woman who was offered more hours at her administrative job, but wasn't sure if she could afford the child care for an extra day each week. She said it's one of many examples of parents having to choose "whether to pay for child care or go to work."
Some of the task force's key findings about Multnomah County's current preschool climate:
• Limited access to preschool, particularly for families of color, families who speak English as a second language, those experiencing poverty, and those who don't qualify for public supports but still can't afford preschool.
• Shortage of early childhood educators and a poorly paid and undervalued existing workforce.
• Shortage of preschool classrooms and facilities.
• Lack of a connected system to support and ensure quality.
Using data from economic consulting firm ECONorthwest, the report shows that only a fraction of families who need preschool and other early learning programs actually qualify for them.
"The number of people in poverty in Multnomah County has increased over the past 20 years at a much higher rate than the growth of the county's total population," the report reads. "More than 60% of Multnomah County households with children under 5 years old fall below the Self-Sufficiency Standard, meaning that they are unable to meet their basic needs without assistance."
Mystique Pratcher, a parent and Albina Head Start policy council representative for Oregon, served on the task force. She said she's seen first-hand how barriers like geographic boundaries and disciplinary protocols like expulsions have left many families of color out of the equation.
"There are not enough Early Head Start programs," Pratcher said, referring to preschool programs geared toward children younger than 3 years old. Her own children have gone through Albina Head Start and Early Head Start, and she's been involved with the childhood learning program for about 14 years.
Echoing the findings of the Preschool For All task force, Pratcher said access to affordable preschool is vital "for parents to become self-sufficient."
"I just graduated with my associate's degree," Pratcher said, something that wouldn't have been possible if not for Albina Head Start, which is co-located on Portland Community College's Cascades campus.
"That allowed me to be on a college campus," she said. "It gave me the opportunity to pursue my education."
Pratcher and other task force members say opportunities need to extend to preschool teachers, too. In order to maintain quality services, the task force said preschool teachers should be paid a salary on par with a kindergarten teacher, and certification standards should be attainable.
Equity, diversity vital to success
"The teachers in the classroom with my students are very diverse," Pratcher said. "I wanted that to be considered. That was an important factor for me."
She touched on the need for staffing to reflect the diversity of children in those settings.
The task force also called for an end to preschool expulsions.
"A lot of African American boys, they're expelled more than any other students," Pratcher said.
Families of preschoolers are feeling the ripple effects of Portland's housing crisis and growing gentrification. As families move farther outside the city, their options for child programs often shrink.
Commissioner Vega Pederson points to the Portland Children's Levy — a property tax measure that benefits the city's youth. The levy generates revenue that can be used for a variety of projects that benefit children's well-being, but it doesn't extend past city limits, leaving out families on the eastern edge of the county toward Gresham and Troutdale.
A 2017 report from Child Care Aware of America puts Oregon in the top five least affordable states for preschool, due in part to the county's dearth of locations.
To solve that, an additional 263 to 580 "high quality" classrooms are needed to offer a universal preschool model in the county, the report found.
That would take major investments from the county and others, in the form of public-private partnerships.
Research cited suggests developers often are reluctant to build additional spaces for preschools, because of the rigorous building standards and the uncertainty about return on investment from tenants that often can't pay market rate rents.
Task force members also advocate for a "mixed delivery" model that would offer preschool using a combination of home-based, center-based, public school and Head Start locations.
The county commissioner acknowledges that adopting a universal preschool model wouldn't be easy.
"We wouldn't be the first to make an investment in the early education system, so we can't let the barriers and challenges stop us from efforts to do it," Vega Pederson said. "It's not going to be on the shoulders of just one government entity to do it. It's really going to take the community as a whole."
In terms of next steps, she said she plans to conduct more public outreach, and said she hopes to see a technical advisory committee and a steering committee to further delve into the report's findings and recommendations.
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