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.

The Labor Force For Needed Investment in Public Child Care Already Exists

The COVID-19 pandemic powerfully clarified what most families have known for decades: Reliable, quality child care is essential to the round-the-clock functioning of the U.S. economy. Equally important, good child care is critical to the future and wellbeing of the nation’s children. Decades of strong research shows that publicly provided high quality early childhood education and care improves life outcomes, reduces poverty and economic inequality, diminishes economic disparities by race and gender, strengthens local economies and yields high returns to taxpayer investments. Yet public investment in child care in the states lags decades behind other wealthy countries despite the extensive evidence.

The quality of preschool and child care critically depends on a skilled, experienced, dedicated labor force that is strongly motivated to work with young children. Yet the vast majority of skilled caregivers and teachers abandon work with young children for other employment before age thirty. This is true at all levels of education, including those with college degrees. This “lost” workforce could be recalled and retained if early preschool and childcare policies are designed to address the low pay, sparse benefits and challenging working conditions that currently lead to high attrition and turnover.

The Untapped Reservoir of Qualified Early Childhood Education and Care Workers

Women account for more than 97 percent of employed, college educated people with college majors in early childhood education. More than 4 of 5 of them do not work with young children. By contrast, 78 percent of employed women with college degrees in nursing are actively working as nurses.

Just 18 percent of employed women with college degrees in early childhood education work with young children as preschool teachers, kindergarten teachers, or childcare workers. Women with associate’s degrees and certificates in early childhood education and development also leave the field in much larger numbers than in other occupations.

Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions Drive Away Early Childhood Workers

Public investment should remove the biggest obstacle to keeping trained people: the combination of low pay and difficult working conditions. These conditions include frequent short-staffing and lack of paid time to prepare for class or to meet with co-workers. More than a quarter of those who remain in the field in their thirties have managed to find positions as preschool or kindergarten teachers in K-12 schools, where conditions are better than in free-standing preschool and childcare workplaces.

In 2020, the median hourly wage of childcare workers in the U.S. was $12.24, meaning an annual salary of $24,480 if full-time, year-round work were available. Benefits are poor, or non-existent. Preschool teachers are not compensated much better, with a median hourly wage of $15.35 in 2020, which translates to $30,700 annually if full-time. Elementary school teachers, by contrast, earn a mean annual salary of $65,420.

Unsurprisingly, turnover rates are high in the early childhood labor force, harming quality and wasting the training, experience and dedication of people who’ve made significant investments in preparing for a career in early childhood education. More than half of women in their 30s with early childhood college majors are working as teachers in the first through twelfth grades.

“At 40 with two kids to support, I wanted a job in the public schools, which gave me more money, benefits and time off, without the headache of trying to hire people at rock-bottom wages or the long days finishing my Director’s duties after being pulled into the classroom to cover for a sick teacher.”

          – Avril Munro, retired master elementary school teacher

Only One in Six Early Childhood Majors Remain in the Field by Age 30

Women with college degrees in early childhood education shift out of work with young children as they age and their responsibilities to support their families increase. Just one in six remain in the field by age 30.

It’s not only low pay and meager benefits that push people out of early childhood education. It’s also the limited scope for advancement in our fractured, largely private childcare system, which is unconnected to schools for older children.

“It wasn’t just the low pay and lack of support, although I did want to be able to buy a house, raise a child and pay for childcare. It was also that I wanted to work in a bigger arena and to have a greater impact, so I enrolled in an MBA program offered in the evening. I spent the rest of my career directing a nonprofit focused on improving STEM education, but my passion has always been early childhood education.”

          – Jennifer Bruckner, retired non-profit director

In short, policymakers and advocates should focus less on expanding the pipeline of people coming from educational and training programs in early childhood education. They need to focus much more on keeping experienced people in the field by creating good jobs that reward early childhood educators for the value of the contribution they are making. If good jobs are available, students will recruit themselves into our educational programs and remain working in the field they were drawn to and invested in as young adults.

Read more in Lisa Dodson and Mary C. King, “Oregon’s Unmet Childcare Needs,” Family Forward Oregon, September 2019; and Catherine J. Weinberger, “Where Did They All Go? A Closer Look at the Labor Markets for Preschool Teachers and Childcare Workers,” The Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, University of California Santa Barbara, 2021.

This article was originally published on Scholars Strategy Network.

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