Preschool for all is truly winnable

My children went to a hippie preschool with a massive garden the kids could roam through, multiple tree houses, and a year-round, play-based curriculum run by engaged, empathetic professionals. Three days a week of attendance cost us about $700 a month per kid. We could barely afford it, but we wanted our children to get a good start to their educations and to learn to play and get along in groups. Just as important, we needed child care so that I could work for pay. So we sucked it up and paid. And paid. We were extremely fortunate that we could afford private preschool, not just for the idyllic garden and tree houses, but because in Portland there are few other options.

What about families who can’t afford private preschool? The programs offered by city community centers only run for three hours a day, rendering them useless for working parents. Preschool Promise, which provides free preschool for kids in families that earn up to double the federal poverty line, offers six hours a day of coverage, but only during the school year. If your family earns more but still can’t afford a pricey private preschool, you’re out of luck.

Portland DSA wants to bring the essential support of free universal pre-K to families in Multnomah County, and we propose to do it by taxing the rich.

At the heart of our campaign are the following principles:

  • That the plan be truly universal, free for everyone.
  • That it be play-based, full-day, full-year preschool.
  • That each community be free to develop the program that suits their particular needs.
  • That child care workers in the program earn at least $18/hour and get free professional development support.
  • That it be funded by a marginal income tax on the top 5%.

Rollout will begin in highest-need neighborhoods, giving us three years to build up the workforce, infrastructure, and reserve fund.

Here’s how we’re going about it:

We looked at existing universal pre-K programs, with particular focus on New York City and Washington, DC, to understand what they entail, how they were implemented, and how their models might be applied in Portland. New York’s free, universal program has increased capacity every year since it began in 2014, with 70,000 three- and four-year-olds now enrolled, but it only runs during the school year. Washington, DC, has offered free, all day, year-round preschool for all three- and four-year-olds since 2008. However, to our knowledge, no U.S. city or state has raised compensation for family child care providers and all preschool staff to a floor of at least $18 an hour, and of all teachers to parity with elementary school teachers. That is a fundamental part of our plan for Portland.

Our research team, made up of skilled analysts and a local economist, considered potential revenue streams and political jurisdictions in consultation with a wide range of community groups and labor unions, and then created our tax proposal and cost model. We zeroed in on the November 2020 election and created a campaign timeline. In April 2019, a year and a half after beginning our research and planning, we presented the campaign at a general chapter meeting for a vote. Universal Pre-K Now was unanimously approved as a flagship campaign.

Our field workers canvass and table every weekend, building our contact list in anticipation of Get Out the Vote efforts as well as building our team of active volunteers. Our goal is to collect 2,000 contacts and have 200 volunteers ready for the ballot signature-gathering period that will run from January to August 2020. Besides building up our database of interested voters, this early list-building demonstrates interest, raises awareness, and aids in fundraising. 

We’re actively building the Universal Preschool NOW! Coalition, asking organizations and institutions to join us in the campaign by signing an endorsement letter. We’re working closely with multiple child care worker unions, as well as non-unionized workers. We’re also working with the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women to push universal pre-K as a feminist demand of reproductive justice, and with the local chapters of several racial justice groups. Financial support is not a condition of membership, but it’s understood that a meaningful level of support is needed to win the ballot measure as a grassroots campaign.

Here in Portland, strong, universal social programs are routinely challenged by the liberal establishment, which supports smaller, means-tested programs. To make matters tougher still, Oregon has very lax campaign finance laws, so we’re up against corporate “progressive” champions with their own agendas. In this particular case, there is an alternative ballot measure for universal “access” to preschool being put forth by venture philanthropists. Their program would be means tested and would keep workers’ wages low, in direct contradiction to two of our core demands.

The ballot measure must be submitted in December 2019, at which point our field operation will pivot from list-building to signature gathering, with the goal of 45,000 signatures by the August 5, 2020 deadline. Here is where we will ask our large coalition to support the campaign with extensive community outreach.

From September 2020 to the election in November, we’ll be in Get Out the Vote mode, with 202,521 YES votes needed to win a high-turnout election.

After the election, and VICTORY, implementation of the three-year roll-out plan begins. Our initiative would create the funding mechanism, which is planned as a 3.9% tax on taxable income over $165,000 for individuals, which corresponds to a gross income of roughly $200,000 before deductions. For couples filing jointly, it would be 3.9% in taxable income over $190,000 (roughly $225,000 in gross income). The tax would be collected as an additional line on the Oregon state tax return. Starting in 2022, the new tax revenue would fund an account at the county dedicated to implementing the universal preschool program. The program is expected to cost between $20,000 and $25,000 per child per year.

We started with the basic idea of taxing the rich and zeroed in on universal pre-K as a project that is small enough to win, but big enough to matter. Child care is widely and deeply needed in Portland and causes as much economic stress and displacement as rising rents; has a historically undervalued workforce; and has a second-generation impact when kids who don’t get to go to preschool don’t do as well as those who do. Portland DSA is throwing its energy into this campaign, and we’re extremely optimistic.