OPINION: Pre-K vs. childcare for all? Should it be a dilemma?
The PreK4All ballot measure reported on in the Feb. 10 issue of The Times included an interview with Bridget Cooke of Adelante Mujeres. She discussed the merits of their proposal but said they had not decided on the funding mechanism. From a recent presentation, she clarified that it would be funded with a tax on high-income earners similar to the one passed in Multnomah County.
Read our story, originally published online Feb. 7, 2022, on the effort to pass universal preschool in Washington County.
That initiative has projected that it would not fully fund the program for at least 7 years before all 3- and 4-year-olds would be served. A similar timeline would be in place for Washington County, and the PreK4All group is asking the county commissioners to place it on the ballot for this November.
Though most parents love the idea of pre-K for all, it is clear from focus groups that have been conducted by Washington County Kids and others that pre-K for all is insufficient to solve the growing crisis of school readiness (3- and 4-year-olds) and access to affordable childcare (infants, toddlers, elementary and middle school students), plus important support services for new parents and teens. These needs should not have to compete.
Childcare, afterschool and summer care affect not only the nearly 150,000 children living in Washington County (30,000 under age 5) and their families that rely on providers for care but also the economy — which can't really recover if working parents have no help caring for their children. And we cannot wait seven years for that help to come. We need a solution that meets the greatest needs first and gears up over time to address the rest.
Though Congress passed a coronavirus relief bill in late December that included $10 billion for childcare — which, according to the nonprofit Center for American Progress, could help many child-care providers survive for a few months if the funds are distributed "quickly and efficiently" — the means testing to receive those funds means only the most disadvantaged will receive any help. It won't be enough, and it has a sunset date.
After conducting polling and focus groups, we have come to the conclusion that without sustained investment in the childcare sector, Washington County could be facing a childcare shortage so severe that many parents may not be able to rejoin the workforce, hindering an economic recovery.
We can't wait for the federal government or the state government to provide too little, too late in programs and funds. We need a local initiative that includes funding for programs for kids of all ages. Programs where those most in need get full support, those who can afford to pay some but not all pay via a sliding scale, and those who can afford to pay continue to pay.
We need to make sure that pre-K teachers and other childcare workers receive a living wage. If we only boost the wages of pre-K teachers, we will cause a shortage of childcare workers for younger and older children as staff abandon those programs to seek higher wages in pre-K.
Recent polling conducted by Friends of Washington County Kids shows that voters will vote yes to paying additional taxes to fund out-of-school-time programs including both early learning and afterschool and summer care. Washington County can remain one of the most economically vibrant counties in Oregon if we solve this problem as comprehensively as possible. We need a solution that can start as soon as the first year's money is collected and allow it to grow over time.
Our county commissioners are the only group empowered by law to authorize putting a funding initiative on the ballot. Now is the time to contact them and let them know how important this issue is to you, your children, your grandchildren, your employers, and their employees and that they need to plan for support during non-school time for all-age children.
Katie Riley is president of Washington County Kids. She holds a doctorate in education from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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