Jason E. Kaplan

Multnomah County’s groundbreaking Preschool for All initiative could offer a teachable moment for the rest of the state — if the ambitious program can be pulled off.

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Angela Benson is nervous.

The owner of Ladybugs Childcare already had a lot on her hands. In July 2020 she expanded her small, home-based daycare in Northeast Portland from 12 slots to 16 and improved her offering with investments in better backyard play equipment and more curriculum-based materials. When COVID-19 restrictions hit, she shifted yet again, hiring an instructor with teaching experience to guide distance learning. Many of her parent clients were frontline workers, and the move was a godsend, allowing those parents to continue to show up for their jobs.

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From left: Ladybugs Academy assistant Jessica Thompson, director of Preschool for All Leslee Barnes, Ladybugs co-owner Corey Davis, owner Angela Benson, PCRI director of property management Andrea Debnam, and PCRI manager of housing and economic development Charles Funches at the groundbreaking for Ladybugs’ new facility in Northeast Portland.

Now Benson is going even bigger, breaking ground on a $500,000 buildout of Ladybug Academy. Nestled in the Beatrice Morrow, an affordable-housing building on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, the 3,500-square-foot facility is set to open this September. Ladybugs Academy will eventually serve between 50 and 100 children drawn from the surrounding community.

Benson plans to run an 18-hour center, operating from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m., and will hire about 20 full- and part-time employees to fill the shifts. She is also promoting herself from child care provider to day care director and has thoughts about adding a few more locations.

“It is a big leap,” she says about the process, “but I cannot fail. I will not fail.”

Benson already has lots of support, but her biggest boost will come from Preschool for All, Multnomah County’s new universal preschool program. “My goal is to fill as many Preschool for All slots as I can,” she says.

Overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2020, Preschool for All funds free, quality care for the county’s 3- and 4-year-olds. The ambitious program promises free tuition, a guaranteed living wage and training for teachers and classroom aides, and plans to prioritize underserved families.

Aware of its ambition, the project’s architects, including Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, built in a long ramp-up period. According to Vega Pederson, the first 500 to 1,000 Preschool for All students will not sit crisscross-applesauce on their carpet square until September 2022. And it will take a full decade before all of Multnomah’s 15,000 to 16,000 preschoolers have the opportunity to be served.

But even with this long lead time and broad support, many factors already threaten the program’s success. Still, Benson, Vega Pederson and others are convinced Preschool for All will make the grade.

0921 spotlightIT4A9206Ladybugs co-owner Corey Davis and owner Angela Benson   Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Finding and affording high-quality daycare and preschool is already challenging in Multnomah County as well as the rest of the state. A study released by Oregon State University finds that Oregon is filled with child care deserts, with all counties lacking sufficient infant and toddler care and nearly 70% of counties unable to accommodate preschoolers in a state-regulated program.

Pandemic restrictions stressed that fragile system even further as providers shut down. Some were able to reopen, like Childroots, which managed to slowly reopen its three locations with limited capacity.

“We are one of the more expensive options in town,” admits enrollment director Angelina Overstreet. Yet even they are still feeling the effects.

“We were treading water all year long and are not yet up to capacity,” Overstreet says.

Still, Childroots is doing better than many. As of late spring 2021, a full one-third of Multnomah’s child care providers remain closed. The story is similar throughout the state. Research commissioned by the Oregon Early Learning Division finds programs operating at two-thirds of their capacity and half reporting at least one closure.

Opening back up means luring staff, many of whom have pivoted to become private nannies or left the profession altogether, back to the job. While it might be easy to blame staffing shortages on COVID, qualified preschool teachers were always in short supply. Pay is a likely driver of the shortage, Vega Pederson says: According to survey data, child care workers make an average of $14.19 per hour, where Bureau of Labor Statistics data say they made $12.17 per hour in 2017.

Preschool for All aims to elevate the profession by setting the teachers’ salary at about $20 an hour, a livable wage closer to what a kindergarten teacher pulls in. Meeting that rate will be a challenge. Childroots, for example, already offers a 3% standard-of-living raise every year and just gave every teacher a $2-an-hour bump. Add in insurance, 401(k), paid vacations, and continuing education and it is no wonder that “the high cost of labor is a topic of every administrative meeting we have,” according to Overstreet.

Sky-high rents have stressed the industry further.

“There is always a thin margin in this business,” says Overstreet. “Nobody is getting rich.”

In March 2020 — right before the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures of businesses and schools across the state — caregivers at Growing Seeds Learning Community, a preschool with three locations in Portland, voted to unionize with ILWU Local 5.

The vote was the result of a year of organizing, says Nat Glitsch, who has worked for Growing Seeds for three years.

“There was so much frustration — really, devastation. People were so unheard and so unhappy,” Glitsch says.

The concerns that led to the union drive — including cleanliness, safety and general working conditions — became particularly acute when the first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in the United States.

Caregivers were laid off for two weeks in spring 2020, but the same issues persisted after the care centers reopened. Short staffing and high turnover continue to plague the industry as a whole, and Glitsch says it’s not a cut-and-dry, workers-versus-management scenario.

“I feel bad for people in management who can’t put out fires and who do a lot of the work themselves,” Glitsch says.

With all the stressors affecting long-established preschools, it is no wonder that Ladybugs Childcare/Academy owner Benson is anxious. Yet hers is the exact sort of business — small but willing to grow, culturally specific, firmly anchored in the community — that the Preschool for All program is designed for.

“Our intention was always to support the small, community-based businesses down the street,” says program director Leslee Barnes. “If you want to do this work, then we want to help.”

That help comes in the form of coaching through the Pathways Program. This program guides providers willing to take that next step and get licensed, or expand their business, or learn the ins and outs of payroll taxes. It also sets standards for engagement and inclusion.

“We want parents to understand what it means to go to a teacher conference and advocate for their child,” says Barnes. “That way it is not a big culture shock when their child goes to kindergarten.”

Kindergarten preparedness, for both children and their families, is the ultimate goal of Preschool for All. This investment, according to Vega Pederson, promises a huge payoff: “Between $7 to $16 goes back to the community for every dollar invested in the program.” It also boosts the earning power of mothers.

For proof, look to Washington, D.C. The city has offered universal, full-day preschool since 2009, and during that time the city’s maternal labor force increased by 10%, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. Considering how COVID-19 restrictions devastated women in the workforce — roughly four times as many women dropped out of the labor force as men — a program like this could level the field.

The program could also have unpleasant, unintended consequences. For instance, providers chasing Preschool for All funding may drop infant and toddler care, which is already hard to find. Or a provider on the county line may choose to relocate or invest in Multnomah, draining much-needed resources from Clackamas or Washington counties.

Barnes is already thinking about how to address these issues, including setting aside funds to stabilize providers providing infant/toddler care.

And the issue of how to pay for this ambitious program — estimated to cost between $14,000 and $21,000 per child — remains. Funded by taxing the county’s highest earners, the program projected to take in about $133 million the first year. Now that first-year number looks a lot lower: about $96 million.

But Vega Pederson is unfazed.

“Income tax is already a volatile revenue source, and the budget we put forward is for that $96 million,” she says. “The timeline we have for building the whole system is about that long-term stability, thoughtful growth and being realistic about the number of slots we can offer each year until we reach full universal.”

The county may get a further financial lift from a national, universal pre-K effort. The program, part of the American Families Plan, proposes $200 billion for quality early-childhood education throughout the country. Will the ambitious proposal pass? Well, that remains to be seen.

Glitsch, who was also part of the Preschool for All organizing effort, is hopeful that the ballot measure will help improve working conditions for caregivers and “this can become a more livable job.”

What is clear is that the voters of Multnomah County do have the appetite for this program. A historic 64% said yes to the measure in the middle of a pandemic, and Glitsch notes that when the initiative was at the petition stage, organizers gathered 30,000 signatures in just five weeks. Neighboring counties are taking notes, and the rest of the state — and country — are also closely watching the rollout.

But the attention does not phase Benson. She has her eyes on her students’ futures.

“I want to make sure these kids are ready for school when they get there.”

From left: Ladybugs Academy assistant Jessica Thompson, director of Preschool for All Leslee Barnes, Ladybugs co-owner Corey Davis, owner Angela Benson, PCRI director of property management Andrea Debnam, and PCRI manager of housing and economic development Charles Funches at the groundbreaking for Ladybugs’ new facility in Northeast Portland.

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