PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Nearly two years after voters approved the money, the first kids are enrolled in Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program.

It’s the first step in the county’s goal to provide universal access to early childhood education.

There are 687 students enrolled in this year’s pilot program. The program plans to expand to more than 1,000 next year.

Leslee Barnes leads the program and hopes that every child in Multnomah County will eventually be enrolled.

“I think what we’re trying to learn is where are the places that need assistance,” she said. “We are prioritizing based on need, there is no income requirement, but we are prioritizing folks that are furthest from the opportunity right now.”

“We talked about how we could go from bringing in kids who have no opportunity to go to preschool either because of income or because of finances,” added Donya Fraizer, co-owner of Early Learning Kingdom.

The $59 million in the budget this year will fund those students, as well as training for new providers and workforce development. The program provides money for providers and families, from $14,000-$21,000 per student.

Around 30% of childcare providers have not reopened since the start of the pandemic and county leaders say that’s leaving kids behind.

“Research has shown time and time again the short-term effects for children and families and the long-term effects for those children and for all the community, there is no better investment,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.

The county hopes to team up with community colleges for training as well as providing higher wages can make childcare a career for more people.

“I think people kind of think of it as a pass-through as they get to their real job. And so we’re trying to market ourselves as a good choice for a career,” Barnes said.