Olivia Pace worked in early childhood education. She loved her job. She loved her kids. Then Covid-19 hit and she was laid off.
“I’ve worked in childcare since I was 15 — since I was a child myself,” said Pace, who lives in Oregon’s Multnomah County, the metro area around Portland.
Preschool workers like Pace were struggling to make ends meet even before the coronavirus.
“All of us were making poverty wages,” she noted. “Walking to work. Carpooling to work. Taking the bus. Eating the extra food at the table with the kids because we were hungry.”
Pace, along with Sahar Yarjani Muranovic and Emily von W. Gilbert — two other Multnomah County activists on behalf of universal preschool — are part of a coalition fighting to transform early childhood education in their community. They have lofty goals, from addressing racial disparities in access to preschool and paying educators a living wage, to helping women stay in the workforce amidst the pandemic.
Now those goals, thanks in part to their organizing, will have a shot at realization. On election day, voters in Multnomah County voted overwhelmingly to adopt Measure 26-214, or the Preschool for All plan, which will guarantee preschool to all three- and four-year-olds, among other outcomes. The measure passed by a 64-36 margin.
Preschool for All enjoyed wide support, including from the Universal Preschool NOW (UP NOW) coalition, of which Pace, Muranovic, and von W. Gilbert all played a part in building. Incredibly, UP NOW was able to garner over 32,000 signatures in just four and half weeks to secure its place on the ballot as a citizen’s initiative before ultimately deciding to combine efforts with Preschool for All.
The Preschool for All initiative reflects a mountain of evidence on how life-changing access to quality preschool for three- and four-year-olds can be. Participation in preschool correlates with long-term benefits that include everything from higher lifetime earnings and better health outcomes to lower rates of crime and teen pregnancy. In the short term, quality preschool leaves children more prepared both academically and socially for grades K-12.
Despite all this evidence, only 24 of the nation’s 40 largest cities offer preschool programs that reach over 30 percent of their four-year-old population, concluded a report last year from CityHealth and the National Institute for Early Education Research. Preschool participation varies widely by jurisdiction. High attendance costs, workforce shortages, and a lack of public investment in early childhood education all reduce participation.
Multnomah County’s Preschool for All initiative aims to address each of these interrelated concerns.
Local preschool teachers and workers, said initiative organizer Muranovic, can’t afford to “send their children to those places where they are taking care of other people’s children.” They told her “about working at places where they charge parents or families $1,200 to $1,300 a month.”