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County officials say nearly 680 slots will be available to students in the first year of the Preschool for All measure.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County officials expect to launch the first online application for the Preschool for All program in mid-April.Families will soon be able to apply to send their young students to preschool for free through Multnomah County's landmark Preschool for All ballot measure.

"We are ready to open the first Preschool for All online application in just a few weeks," said Leslee Barnes, director of the Preschool for All program, during a briefing to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on March 29. She added that the program is on track for the first students in the program to begin preschool this September.

The announcement marks a key milestone toward making tuition-free preschool available to all 3- and 4- year-olds in the county, as the Preschool for All measure provides.

Voters overwhelmingly passed the measure in 2020 with 64% of the vote. It is funded by a personal income tax of 1.5 % on joint filers earning more than $200,000 and 3% on joint filers earning more than $400,000. The tax went into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

The number of slots available this fall is within the range county officials projected for the first year of implementation. The county will gradually expand the number of available slots each year, offering between 11,000 and 12,000 slots at full implementation by 2030.

During the briefing, Brooke Chilton-Timmons, an analyst with the county's Early Learning Division, painted an alarming picture of the ongoing shortage of preschool and child care slots in the county.

"It's important to remember what a devastating impact the pandemic has had on child care providers," Chilton-Timmons said. "The pandemic made shockingly clear how unstable our child care system is."

Prior to the pandemic, only 42% of kids ages 3 to 5 in Multnomah County had access to a regulated child care slot, according to data from Oregon State University's Child Care Research Partnership. Access is far lower (20%) for kids 2 years old and younger, but Preschool for All won't cover that age group. Many other counties around the state had even less access.

The pandemic exacerbated the problem. There are still 300 fewer child care providers in the county currently than there were pre-pandemic, which amounts to a loss of more than 20% of providers, Chilton-Timmons said.

This fall, 677 preschool slots will be available at existing preschool providers through the Preschool for All program. Of those, 206 will be brand new slots. The other 471 slots are previously available slots that would otherwise not have been accessible to families with lower incomes but will now be paid for through Preschool for All.

The program prioritizes families with the least access to affordable preschool. Priority groups include families with low incomes, families of color, migrant or refugee families, non-English speaking families, military households, students living in foster care, students with teenage parents and students with special needs.

The county has partnered with four culturally specific community-based organizations to conduct outreach to families about the program and help them apply. The organizations include the Immigrant Refugee Community Organization, Self Enhancement Inc., Latino Network and Native Youth and Family Center.

Families receiving slots will be able to choose what type of preschool setting their student attends, Chilton-Timmons said. "We believe that families should choose, have the opportunity to pick from multiple kinds of programs that are going to be the best fit for their child," she said.

Forty-eight existing preschool locations will host Preschool for All slots this fall, serving as pilot sites. Half of those locations will be certified home-based providers, with the other half made up of school-based providers and small preschool centers.

County staff selected pilot sites in areas where access to preschool is particularly low, including along the Interstate 205 corridor in East County and in North Portland. Sixty-eight percent of the home-based and small preschool center providers are run by owners or directors who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color, Chilton-Timmons said.

It's too early to tell how many families will apply during the first application period, said Ryan Yambra, spokesperson for the Department of County Human Services, via email.

Applications will be assessed using a consistent process, he said. In addition to the priority criteria, "availability and 'fit' according to family choice will also inform placement decisions," Yambra said. Families will be matched with preschools this summer, according to county staff.

County staff are also preparing for Preschool for All to grow over time through the Pathways Program. The program provides individualized coaching support to help providers grow and eventually host Preschool for All slots, Barnes said. So far, the county has received 67 applications from providers to the Pathways Program, and 50 have been matched with a coach. 

When the measure was originally placed on the ballot in 2020, campaign officials estimated the measure would raise $133 million in its first year and grow steadily from there. But after the tax code was finalized early last year, county officials said revenue for the measure would be 21% lower than the original estimates.

Despite the reduction, officials are confident they will be able to maintain the program as outlined in the Preschool for All implementation plan created in summer 2020, Yambra said.

"Though these revenue adjustments were significant, they were not unexpected at the time nor did they require significant program scope revisions," he said.

More information about the Preschool for All program is available on the county's website.

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