Oregon County Votes for Universal Pre-K in Watershed Moment for US Education

Thanks to the efforts of a committed coalition of local organizers, unions and educators, residents of Oregon’s Multnomah County have passed a ballot initiative known as Measure 26-214, by a substantial margin. As a result, the county will now begin the process of creating a tuition-free, year-round, full-day universal preschool program. By the time the system is fully rolled out, schools will be open to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the county, which comprises Portland and surrounding areas. The program will be funded through a progressive income tax on high earners, and will pay preschool teachers and assistants a living wage, significantly above the local minimum.

The passage of this measure symbolizes truly exemplary progress for early childhood education in the United States, as circumscribed access and systemic underfunding have ensured that, for U.S. preschools, success has been scattered and failures widespread.

Universal Is Best

Despite the unusual popularity of early education programs across partisan lines, the United States rates dismally low on international rankings of preschool enrollment, funding and quality. The inadequacy of care and education provided to our very young is not only an issue of better educating the populace — it is also an issue of inequality, feminism, and racial and economic justice. To start with, any program that doesn’t remedy the unconscionably low wages of pre-K teachers (who are 98 percent women, disproportionately women of color) will undermine itself as a result.

But well-funded, high quality, tuition-free universal preschool programs can lift some of the burden of extraordinarily expensive child care from the parents of 3- and 4-year-olds; strengthen socio-emotional development in children, improving mental health; and provide better nutrition, among other interrelated knock-on effects. Such interventions are essential to addressing educational inequality between rich and poor children, which begins in infancy; like a wound in a tree trunk, the gap in academic outcomes widens with time as children grow and move through underfunded, de facto segregated schools.

Vast amounts of research have corroborated the importance of pre-kindergarten education. Both targeted (means tested) and universal programs can lessen achievement disparities and substantially increase student academic readiness. We have every reason to expand pre-K, from baseline morality to sheer self-interest. The National Institutes of Health estimates a lifetime return between $4 and $11 for every dollar spent on a child’s early education. High quality preschool is a net good — but making it open to all, not just low-income students, confers even greater benefits.

Universality, as a recent Dartmouth study found, significantly increases academic performance compared to programs with income-restricted admissions. Advocates of means testing charge that preschool programs should chiefly be made available to low-income families — but in practice, universal schools’ greater racial and economic diversity disproportionately benefit poor students. Means-tested programs, meanwhile, preclude more diverse classrooms and put up significant barriers to entry in the form of complex and burdensome income proof requirements, requiring administrative resources to establish eligibility.

For these and other reasons, despite the greater expense of enrolling more students, universal programs are also the most cost-effective. They advance school integration, increase social cohesion and substantiate the notion that education is a human right. Crucially, universal access is grounded in the belief that public institutions are part of the commons, vested by all members of a community — a moral philosophy under grave threat in our neoliberal era. High quality universal pre-K, as with more equitable education in general, is not a panacea, nor is it a replacement for broader redistributive policies. It will not be sufficient to achieve socio-economic justice — but it will be necessary.

During the 2019 Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders unveiled a plan that outstripped all others in scope. Sanders called for both free universal child care and free universal public preschool, funded by taxes on wealth, high incomes and corporate profits. Joe Biden’s campaign was slow to address the issue at the time, but since obtaining the Democratic nomination (and perhaps taking a cue from Sanders), it has released a child care and universal preschool plan, funded by rescinding “tax breaks for real estate investors” and “taking steps to increase tax compliance for high-income earners.” The plan is lacking in further detail; its viability and Biden’s level of commitment to making good on it remain to be seen.

A Neglected Public Good

For now, a tattered patchwork of federal, state, local and private preschool programs exists across the United States. They vary wildly in quality, access and enrollment levels. Best known is the federal means-tested Head Start program, a relic of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Despite being in place for over 50 years, it enrolls only 4 in 10 of all eligible low-income preschool-age children; in toto, only 10 percent of all 4-year-olds and 8 percent of all 3-year-olds. Its funding is deeply inadequate — one-third of its estimated needs — and its outcomes are accordingly sporadic and unequal. Teacher pay is abysmally low.

Progress at the state level is not much better: The National Institute for Early Education Research “calculates that at the current rate of growth in state-funded pre-K, it would take 150 years to reach 75 percent enrollment.” Only two state-funded programs are fully universal (by the strictest definition): Florida and Vermont. (Washington, D.C., also has a hearteningly successful full-universal program, paid for in part by Head Start funds, though that funding is threatened.) Several other states are universal to varying degrees. Most of the rest have some level of targeted state program, though six states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire) have no state funded pre-K at all.

Florida’s universal pre-K program is near the very top in enrollment, but sadly, it’s more than anything a cautionary tale of the consequences of woeful underfunding. Universality alone is not enough to guarantee successful outcomes. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “When Florida created universal pre-K in 2002, the state gave schools $2,500 per child. This year, the state gave schools $2,437” — not adjusted for inflation. Results have predictably suffered. Some critics, and plenty of free market ideologues, have seized upon similar negative outcomes and the “fade out” of academic gains found in evaluations of Head Start and in a Vanderbilt study of Tennessee’s foundering program as evidence that pre-K is irredeemably flawed. But, the Learning Policy Institute demonstrated, these findings are attributable to “(a) the study design and comparison group composition in later grades; and (b) the quality of the preschool programs in question.” In the case of Tennessee, the “fade out” effect measured as children in the study moved through the school system may also have been due in part to the low quality of the kindergartens and grade schools they later attended.

Still, as noted, Head Start is desperately underfunded, and the Tennessee program was focused on rote learning — one of the least effective pedagogical methods, especially for young children. Preschool that isn’t developmentally appropriate only alienates students and gives them an early distaste for school. But such shortcomings aren’t a sign that further austerity and funding pulls are warranted. Just the opposite, in fact. Repeatedly, we see this sleight-of-hand: hobble public social programs, then use the resulting underperformance as evidence that the programs don’t work. The idiom “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” comes to mind. Misinformed or bad faith readings of these studies by opponents of broad social programs serve only to bolster ideological justifications for further austerity.

Where state and federal governments have failed, some major cities have taken the lead. One of the best local government programs has been implemented in New York City. Universal preschool was a keystone promise of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign; to his credit, there has been great progress toward fulfilling it. New York City now enrolls more students in pre-K than ever before: in 2019, about 70,000 across the five boroughs. It’s open to both 3- and 4-year-olds, unlike many programs, which are limited to 4-year-olds. As of 2018, 94 percent of the city’s pre-K programs were found to be performing at a level predictive of later academic achievement, up from 77 percent in 2015. And, again to his credit, de Blasio has explicitly insisted that the program be universal, not means tested.

Yet, New York City’s program did fail to live up to its original promise in one crucial respect: its funding source. During his campaign, de Blasio had repeatedly asserted that the program was to be funded by a tax on incomes above half a million dollars. But that redistributive aspect was lost, largely thanks to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came out in favor of pre-K, but not the progressive income tax. Cuomo instead “promised to include money for it in the state budget.” A deal was reached that earmarked $300 million for pre-K — at the price of enormous concessions to charter schools, that quintessential symbol of privatization, inimical to the public education commons from preschool through high school.

A better approach is possible. We can have high quality universal preschool with fair teacher pay. The research supports it. The public wants it. Taxes on the rich could fund it. Now that Measure 26-214 has passed, Multnomah County, Oregon, is poised to actually realize this potential.

In Oregon, a Shot at Real Change

Measure 26-214 will establish a marginal income tax with two tiers: 1.5 percent on individual taxable income (after deductions) over $125,000 and household income over $200,000, and 3 percent on individual income over $250,000 and household income over $400,000. Both rates will increase by 0.8 percent in 2026. All proceeds will go toward funding a fully inclusive, state-of-the-art preschool program. The tax will help counter out-of-control wealth inequality — which is quite severe in the county, as elsewhere in the U.S. — by inching just a bit closer to the kind of high top-bracket income tax rates that were the norm until the Reagan era. Area voters proved to be overwhelmingly in favor of such steps: 64.4 percent marked “Yeson Measure 26-214 on their ballots, with only 35.54 percent voting against.

Professor of Economics Emerita at Portland State University Mary King has helped develop the measure’s policies and worked on coalition outreach. “A progressive income tax is the best way to counter soaring economic inequality, created in large part by federal policies. Responsibility for taxes has been pushed down the spectrum of the income distribution for the past 40 years, while at the same time, every policy that strengthens the income floor has been weakened,” King says. “We can counter this by providing high quality, universal free public preschool on a schedule that lets parents work. It’s a proven two-generation anti-poverty strategy that also shrinks racial educational disparities while bringing the whole community together.”

Such a groundbreaking measure did not spring into being fully formed. It has its basis in an existing initiative called Preschool for All that had long been planned by Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. Backed by nonprofits like United Way and Social Venture Partners, a “venture philanthropy” organization, Preschool for All initially proffered a less ambitious income-targeted approach. The original Preschool for All report, released in July 2019, called for a program open to a third to half of the kids in the county who were not already eligible for Head Start, Oregon Pre-K or Preschool Promise (all of which are also means tested). It would have been free only to families with incomes below the Oregon Self-Sufficiency Standard, with tuition charged on a sliding scale for higher-income families. The original teacher wage floor in the Preschool for All proposal was only $15 an hour, 25 cents above the local minimum wage. Importantly, the Preschool for All proposal didn’t identify any funding source.

Unions, community groups and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)* had already allied to advocate for universal preschool with a campaign called Universal Preschool Now! 2020 (UP NOW), which emerged from efforts to halt the closure of affordable day care and community centers. Initially, after learning of the competing campaign, UP NOW organizers, including King, entered talks with Preschool for All organizers in an attempt to increase program wages and access, and push for funding via progressive income tax. But negotiations stalled — so, working with volunteer attorneys, they drafted their own more radical proposal, incorporating a tax funding mechanism developed by King and DSA organizer John Bethencourt.

Around Universal Preschool Now! gathered a coalition of local advocates and organizers that included teachers, child care workers and parents, along with elements of the Portland Association of Teachers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Portland Jobs With Justice, the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Oregon) and numerous other unions, community organizations and Indigenous advocacy groups. The more sweeping ambitions of the final iteration of Measure 26-214 are a product of this force, with which the earlier Preschool for All proponents were often at odds.

UP NOW organizers faced significant hurdles in getting their universal program on the ballot. In Multnomah County, those who wish to put forth a measure must collect 22,000 signatures to qualify. Almost immediately, UP NOW earned the ire of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a powerful local trade group. Desperate to ward off any tax increases, individuals associated with the PBA mounted two court challenges that were transparently intended to kneecap the campaign by running out the clock on the six months they had to collect signatures. One laughably frivolous challenge took issue with the ballot language. The filers charged that it was “unfair” and “inaccurate” to call the measure “universal.” As the court summarized it, their claim was that the term was “politically loaded,” and was included only to make the measure “more electorally appealing.” The court disagreed.

The challenges were largely defeated, but at the cost of organizers’ precious time and funds. Left with only five weeks to collect the necessary signatures for the November ballot, and in the middle of the pandemic, UP NOW mobilized hundreds of volunteers (many of them parents and preschool teachers themselves), and gathered 32,356 signatures.

“We were completely blindsided by the way our support snowballed as the signature drive got going. The response was so enthusiastic — sometimes you would ask for a signature and get a new volunteer instead. It was just a handful of us petitioning at the beginning of June, and five weeks later, over 600 people had turned in signatures,” said Bethencourt, the DSA organizer.

Bethencourt was one of the driving forces behind the UP NOW campaign, along with local advocates Emily von W. Gilbert and Sahar Muranovic.

The sheer rapidity and quantity of the signature collection attests to the popularity of the concept and the energy of these and other extraordinarily passionate and motivated activists, veteran organizers and parent volunteers alike. (After the signatures were submitted, the PBA, through their law firm, threatened yet another legal challenge, claiming that the number of signatures collected was impossibly high.)

The startling success of UP NOW meant that Preschool for All was forced to respond to its pressure from the left. UP NOW’s qualification resulted in an unusual situation: two competing preschool measures were now on the ballot. Neither campaign wanted to split votes and confuse voters, so through some bureaucratic maneuvering, the UP NOW measure was passed and repealed. The two camps then negotiated a combined plan: the remaining ballot measure, 26-214, would proceed under the banner and leadership of Preschool for All, but it would now incorporate most of the more radical demands of UP NOW.

During initial rollout, the program will still be restricted to low-income families. But the grassroots leverage applied by UP NOW is responsible for ensuring that access will be fully universal by fall 2030, and for establishing the funding via progressive income tax that makes the measure a true exercise in redistribution. The wage floor was also raised substantially, set at 135 percent of the local minimum. Lead pre-K teachers will be paid at a rate comparable to kindergarten teachers in the region, and the wage floor will also apply to assistants, which is unique — other universal programs have only set wage floors for lead teachers.

There are additional facets of the final measure that make it particularly robust. Critically, it upholds the right of teachers to unionize. Measure 26-214 also prohibits suspensions and expulsions, which can often be a vector for implicit racial bias. Schooling and care will be available in a wide variety of settings: parents can select classes and schools tailored to different teaching styles, languages and cultural environments, and times of day. All programs will adhere to Oregon’s Early Learning and Kindergarten Guidelines, which “focus on developing the whole child by addressing social-emotional skills, approaches to learning, early literacy, vocabulary, early math skills, and physical/motor development, in a playful and developmentally appropriate way” — in contrast to stultifying or high-pressure programs that undermine enthusiasm and thereby achievement.

All these stipulations were carefully designed to sidestep the pitfalls that have compromised other preschool programs. For now, because of the strident demands of socialists and activists, Measure 26-214 is the only proposal in the country that reaches this far in its ambitions. Because of its resounding success at the ballot box, as the program is rolled out, Multnomah County will now serve as a testbed — a microcosm of what U.S. education might look like if we began to commit to the kind of civic endeavors that deliver outsize benefits to society at large, and to disadvantaged and working-class people in particular. Implementing a genuinely egalitarian early education program at national scale would be an enormous challenge, but Multnomah preschools may come to serve as a paradigmatic example, as they will strive for the ideals of true universality, high-quality curricula, socioeconomic justice and fair teacher pay. At the very least, the passage of this measure will improve the circumstances of thousands of children and families in Oregon. It’s a testament to the appeal of and dire need for these kinds of programs that voters so overwhelmingly approved it. And now, Multnomah County will have the chance to stand as an exemplar of the promise of radical equality inherent in universal preschool.

Note: This article has been updated to incorporate the electoral results concerning the ballot measure.

*Disclosure: The author of this piece is a member of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.