PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When Crystal Gwyn had to relocate her Southeast Portland preschool that serves 250 families, she quickly realized something: there aren’t a lot of facility options available for child care providers.
That made her a bit concerned about what would happen as thousands of Multnomah County children become eligible for free preschool in the coming years through the Preschool for All program.
“I bet I looked at 100 or more facilities, and that was actually physically looked at,” said Gwyn, the executive director of Childswork Learning Center. “I probably looked at close to 1,000 facilities on paper in the last year and none of them had the requirements needed to be a preschool.”
Preschool for All, which voters passed in November 2020, will provide free preschool to all Multnomah county 3- and 4-year-olds. The service is funded by a 1.5% tax on income over $125,000 for individuals and $200,000 for joint filers, and an additional 1.5% on taxable income over $250,000 for individuals and $400,000 for joint filers.
The county plans to launch the pilot program in September 2022 and in the first year hopes to provide free preschool to 500 to 1,000 students. Over the next 10 years, the county plans to develop and expand the system and anticipates it will eventually serve 15,000 to 19,000 kids.
“We’re really doing a small and intentional rollout,” said Leslee Barnes, Multnomah County Preschool and Early Learning Division director.
But even this small rollout has providers like Gwyn concerned. She’s not sure if there’s enough capacity at existing preschools and wanted to know if the Preschool for All program would purchase properties and build additional facilities or help providers expand their existing facilities.
She also knows getting care facilities up to code does not come cheap. Right now, at Childswork Learning Center’s new location at Tabor Heights United Methodist Church, Gwyn said it’s going to cost $27,000 to bring in an architect to examine the space in order for it to meet permitting requirements.
Barnes said the county is aware of these concerns and in a meeting on Tuesday, the county and City of Portland decided they would both contribute one-time sums of $100,000 to a facility fund to help child care providers expand. They also expect to get about $250,000 in private financing, bringing the total to $450,000.
“It’s a really great investment and it is responding to the needs, the immediate needs that we have,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “I think it’s going to also set like a very good foundation for the ongoing investment in facilities that preschool for all will be making.”
Barnes said they’re currently focusing on helping providers expand, rather than purchasing property and developing it.
Anita Rea-Davis owns All Families Welcome, LLC and has her own concerns about Preschool for All. She’s currently having a difficult time hiring child care staff – an issue several care providers have told KOIN 6 News they’ve been experiencing during the pandemic.
“We have lots of kids that need care. We have waiting lists. We turn away people all the time. We get 2, 3, 4 phone calls a day for care and we can’t handle them,” Rea-Davis said.
She said she can’t accept more kids because she tries to maintain a ratio of three children to one staff member and since she can’t hire more staff, she can’t accept more kids. She said she’s receiving applications, but people aren’t showing up for interviews.
Prosper Portland contacted Rea-Davis in September asking her to operate a new child care facility in the Nick Fish apartment building in Northeast Portland. Rea-Davis said she wanted to, but had to pass on the opportunity because she didn’t feel confident she’d be able to hire the staff.
While she hopes the situation will improve by September 2022, she worries Preschool for All might encounter the same challenge.
Vega Pederson said she hopes the wage Preschool for All will offer to providers will incentivise more people to get into the field. She said they plan to offer providers salaries on par with what a public kindergarten school teacher earns.
Barnes said they hope to introduce preschool teaching and child care as potential career opportunities for parents and high school students, to help grow the number of qualified professionals in the future. She said Preschool for All is also exploring the idea of creating a pool of substitutes to allow staff time off and to help them avoid burnout.
“These are just ideas, but these are things that help people really do that work that want to do the work,” Barnes said. “They just have been taxed for so long mentally, physically, with all of the work.”
Rea-Davis is also concerned about the success of Preschool for All after she’s seen few people take advantage of the Preschool Promise program at her facility. Preschool Promise is offered through the state and provides free preschool to children living at 200% of the poverty level.
Right now, Rea-Davis can offer Preschool Promise to up to 18 students, but has only one student taking advantage of the program.
Vega Pederson said that could be due to the income limitation. She said that’s why Preschool for All was designed differently, to allow all 3 and 4-year-olds to attend preschool for free, despite their family’s income.
However, in its early stages, Vega Pederson said Preschool for All will focus on children who have the least access to quality preschool.
Barnes and Vega Pederson also addressed how Preschool for All will meet students’ cultural needs. They said this was a foundational piece of the program and they hope that by offering preschool in a variety of ways, such as through public schools, center-based care, the two generation approach, culturally-specific care and licensed home-based care, they’ll be inclusive to a variety of families.
Care providers Gwyn and Rea-Davis said they’re both excited for Preschool for All to begin and are both applying to the program now in order to offer spots for students.
“We know if good opportunities are given to little, tiny children that they’re going to benefit their whole lives. So, we just want to see it done right,” Gwyn said.
Preschool for All officials say families will be able to apply for slots in early 2022. The pilot program launches at the start of the school year, in September 2022.