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A similar universal preschool initiative from another group also planned for November vote

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - These preschoolers at Mt. Hood Community College Head Start were conferring on some pre-pandemic learning.

A group working to get free preschool for all children in Multnomah County submitted signatures to get its initiative on the November ballot.

Universal Preschool NOW turned in more than 30,000 signatures to the Multnomah County elections office. It needs 22,686 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot in November. The elections department has 30 days to validate the signatures.

Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson also has been leading a group working on a free preschool program under the banner Preschool for All.

Multnomah County Commissioners are expected to vote in July to put Preschool for All before voters on the November ballot.

"Our coalition is working toward a referral to the ballot in late July, to give voters a chance to say yes to our equitable approach, and give every child in our community the opportunity to thrive," Pederson said in a statement.

The Universal group said they have been in discussions over the past year with the Preschool for All effort, and "look forward to continuing these conversations."

Pederson did not directly address the confusion that two similar propositions might cause voters or the prospects for the two to combine their efforts, but earlier said "I don't think it serves anyone well to have two measures before voters."

In announcing its submission of signatures, Universal Preschool NOW said "With the overwhelming response to our campaign, Multnomah County voters demonstrated they are hungry for sustainable, systemic solutions that will begin to close opportunity gaps, especially for our Black, Brown, and Indigenous students."

Universal Preschool NOW has been working on its initiative for three years, the group said.

"If approved by voters, Universal Preschool NOW would provide tuition-free, high-quality, culturally responsive and inclusive preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Multnomah County whose families choose it, starting in areas of the county with the highest concentrations of Black and Brown families and lower-income households," the group said.

Universal Preschool NOW proposes to pay preschool teachers and their assistants starting wages of $18 per hour. The program would be funded through an income tax on only the top 5% of high-income-earners in Multnomah County.

Universal Preschool NOW said numerous studies have shown preschool is critically important in preparing children for kindergarten and future success and said Oregon ranks in the top four least affordable states when it comes to preschool and early child care. It said families spent an average of $9,396 annually per child in 2017, often as much as 30% to 40% of their income.

Multnomah County has less than half the number of preschool spaces needed to serve all eligible children, and Black and Brown children are disproportionately affected, the group said.

Universal Preschool NOW is endorsed by more than 30 community organizations including the Portland Association of Teachers, Jobs with Justice and National Organization for Women in Oregon.

There already are free or subsidized preschool options for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds through the federal Head Start and Oregon's Preschool Promise and Pre-Kindergarten programs. But, there are not enough spaces for all the children that qualify.

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