New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain

By Mary King and Lisa Dodson

In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.

Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.

A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs

Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.

Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:

  • language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
  • types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
  • schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days

Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.

Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers

Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.

Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.

Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Unmet Challenges

Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.

Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.

Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.

To Address the Child Care Crisis, Talk to Low Wage Moms

Now that unemployment numbers have revealed that women are bearing the brunt of job losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic, discussion  of America’s childcare crisis has taken center stage. Data from the Pew Research Center show that mothers have lost three times more jobs than fathers – and  women accounted for all jobs lost in December 2020. The results can be devastating. In addition to the short-term economic damage inflicted by job losses, women who experience these employment gaps may face lifelong shortfalls in income and retirement benefits. The mental health of many mothers has also deteriorated, as relayed in dozens of recent media accounts reporting extreme levels of stress, depression and feelings of hopelessness borne by women trying to provide for their children.

The collapse of America’s already fragile childcare system is at the center of this crisis. By some estimates, as many as 4.5 million childcare “slots” may be permanently lost and as many as 40% of childcare providers say they will never reopen. The nation’s makeshift childcare “system” may now be getting public attention – but for millions of working mothers, conflicts between earning wages and caring for children have long been everyday experiences. If, as the pandemic ends, legislators are going to tackle the challenge of ensuring adequate, accessible child care for U.S. families, then the least well-served moms must be front and center in policy creation and implementation. The proposed child tax credit is an important temporary investment for working families, but long term, high-quality universal child care is essential for the nation.

A Persistent Crisis

Millions of low-wage working parents face extreme “choices” as they try to do jobs and care for children. The workforce called “essential” during the pandemic is dominated by working women, many of them mothers. Women are the majority of retail sales workers (77%), grocery clerks (66%), food preparers and wait staff (70%), home health and personal care workers (85%), hospitality clerks and maid service workers (66% and 88%), domestic cleaners (93%), and child care workers (93%).  Women of color are significantly overrepresented in these jobs that pay between $22,000-$31,000 annually – about double the average cost of child care for one infant. Many of these occupations require work during evenings, nights, and weekends yet, nationally, less than 10% of providers offer childcare in such hours. Worse, workers in such posts often get little notice about scheduling and shift changes that affect their childcare arrangements.

In hundreds of interviews conducted over the last decade, we have listened to working women coping with these challenges. Moms talked about working two poverty-wage jobs, racing in between different childcare arrangements to pick up, drop off, and pack food – all while trying to reassure anxious children that things are okay. One mother, Maria, who identifies as Mexican American, told us that in 2018 she could scrape together 20 minutes to “visit” her kids between office cleaning and a Pizza Hut job. Working the 12 hours daily meant she could almost cover her bills. Her story was just one of many among moms who bounced between work and family demands on less than five hours of sleep.

No Child Care for Moms Trying to Move Up

Other mothers described trying to escape poverty through higher education or apprenticeships. Ally, a white single mom, was overjoyed to have entered an apprenticeship program in 2020 – not knowing that there was virtually no childcare provider that would take her baby at 5:30 AM. She turned to the classified ad website Craigslist to find “someone safe” and, before COVID anxiety made insomnia a common concern, passed sleepless nights wondering if a pathway out of wage poverty could balance the risks of patchwork child care.

Talia, an African American mother of one child, was going to college full time in 2016 while working retail jobs; working at least 20 hours a week is a requirement to get state childcare help while attending college. Talia’s little house of cards tumbled when her daughter’s chronic ear infections required a tonsillectomy; with no paid leave, she lost her job – and consequently her child care.

In 2020, Emily, who is “Native and white” closed the home-based childcare program that she ran with her spouse after applying for “every kind of pandemic financing that there was.” None came through. Emily thinks that her history of low wages and lack of a previous “banking relationship” killed her applications. She lost her income and the parents of eight children who were doing direct care, retail, and food preparation jobs lost their child care and their jobs.

The Leaders We Need May be the Women We Leave Behind

These women have deep experiential knowledge about the crisis that millions of working parents now face. They know all about tenacity and exhaustion, about performing cheeriness in front of anxious children and later spinning into despair. They know about loyalty and helping each other as sisters, mothers, and grandmothers, as members of neighborhood, labor and faith-based networks. Importantly, they know that if a childcare system emerges in the wake of the pandemic, they are the moms most likely to be left out – just as they have been with other work and family policies.

For example, the Center on Law and Social Policy reports that 93% of low-wage workers and 94% of part-time workers have zero access to paid leave. One in four mothers – disproportionately low-wage workers – returns to work within two weeks of childbirth. Flexibility, highly valued among parents in professional jobs, is upside down for lowest wage workers, who are often forced to work “open schedules” or at the will of the employer, with no stable schedule or income. As the possibility of accessible child care becomes increasingly real, millions of the nation’s families – disproportionately families of color and single mother families – may be left out once again.

Policymakers can make new legislation inclusive by focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable working families and their children. Low-wage moms and their advocates said that inclusive child care must be treated as a public good, like public education, and available to all as soon as they return to work. Child care must include nonstandard hours and drop-in options to help low-wage parents deal with unstable schedules. It must also be designed to address the concerns and cultural diversity of BIPOC families. The double burden carried by single mothers.

Disproportionately working in low-wage inflexible jobs was identified as a major factor to keep in mind when new programs are devised. And, importantly, childcare workers must earn living wages for their valuable work – work that holds up the entire economy as well as individual families.

Research and data for this brief are drawn from Lisa Dodson and Mary King, “Oregon’s Unmet Childcare Needs,” Family Forward Oregon, September 2019; and other published reports.

This article was originally published with Scholars Strategy Network.

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