Is the tide finally turning when it comes to funding preschool in Oregon? That depends on us, say early childhood educators. 

Ever since former President Barack Obama took to the podium in 2013 to call out a lack of quality early-learning opportunities for U.S. children and to announce bold federal investments in early childhood education (ECE), everybody’s been talking about the availability and affordability of preschool in our communities — or lack thereof.   

Why is preschool so expensive? Who’s monitoring the quality? And how does access to a good preschool affect learning outcomes in elementary school and beyond?

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Seven years on, that federal funding has expanded preschool availability for Oregon’s lowest-income children, yet Oregon remains the fourth-least affordable state for preschool overall, according to a 2017 Child Care Aware of America report. And the quality and oversight of existing preschools is hardly consistent.

The happier news: 2019 was a banner year for ECE funding in Oregon. In addition to a $25 million annual increase in federal  funds for Oregon’s Early Learning Division (ELD), the Oregon State Legislature passed the Student Success Act, which earmarks $1 billion annually to fund early learning and K-12 education.

But Portland’s ECE professionals warn that it’ll take more than money to effect meaningful change. We need to build a better-engaged community of parent-advocates, they say — empowered to ask hard questions and to stump tirelessly for some long overdue change.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Preschool

Parents might be surprised to learn that, in the state’s eyes, broadly, there’s little difference between a preschool and a day care, beyond the fact that a preschool generally provides care to children between 36 months of age and the start of kindergarten.

This lack of consistent standards and definitions can be incredibly confusing for parents to navigate, notes Stacey Dunbar, owner of Northeast Portland’s Spanish-immersion preschool Aprende con Amigos and CEO/founder of the brand-new Aspen Center, a modern community center focused on supporting women and their families.

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Ultimately, judging a preschool’s quality is down to the parents, she says: “‘Preschool’ really means nothing in particular, according to the Child Care Division’s rules,” she says. “If someone’s calling it a preschool, [parents need to] ask them why they’re calling it a preschool. I could answer that question backward and forward, top to bottom.”

The term “preschool” carries a certain cachet, agrees early childhood educator Adriana Delgado, who has worked in ECE for more than 10 years, but buyer beware: “Anybody can open up a child care program and say, ‘This is a preschool,’” she explains. “And that one word — ‘school’ sounds more appealing to parents than a day care.”

In Oregon, state-funded, income-contingent preschool programs like Head Start have specific curriculum and learning requirements, but all other preschools, whether center-based, home-based or public-school based, fall under the umbrella of “child care.”

They might offer lots of pre-K prep, or have no traditional curriculum whatsoever. And preschools operating four or fewer hours a day require no licensing or inspection at all beyond basic background checks.

Full-day licensed preschools, on the other hand, must meet a higher set of standards, including: registering with the state, having planned educational activities, passing twice-yearly inspections, and completing ongoing training in health and safety, child development, and abuse and neglect prevention.

“The definitional thing is hard,” acknowledges Sara Mickelson, Chief of Staff for Oregon’s Early Learning Division (ELD), which oversees child care programs for children ages 0-5. “As a field, we’re wrestling with it. Whether you call it child care or preschool, it’s an important time of kids’ lives …  And to have those high expectations, as we do in our public programs, we need to finance the system better.”

The 2019 windfall has been a welcome boon for the ELD, which regulates licensed programs and supports the quality of existing programs as well as operating programs and services targeting historically underserved children and families.

The ELD has come under scrutiny in recent years after a string of deaths and injuries in Oregon child care facilities. Watchers blame the deficits on a lack of common standards and proper oversight — a tragic symptom of chronic underfunding.

In a 2019 report, Oregon State University echoed the concerns, noting that preschoolers in 25 of Oregon’s 36 counties live in “Child Care Deserts,” meaning children outnumber regulated child care slots 3 to 1.

Here in Multnomah County, under the leadership of Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, an initiative is underway to create a large-scale, publicly funded preschool program. In its 2019 report, the Preschool for All Task Force called out a statewide failure to invest in early learning opportunities (and ECE educator salaries) and a resulting shortage of affordable, quality preschools for the county’s approximately 19,000 3- and 4-year-olds. Hardest hit: children who live in poverty, have special needs, and whose home language is not English.

Oversight is also a concern: Licensed preschools are subject to twice-yearly inspections — one announced, and one unannounced — which target health-and-safety issues like lead in the water and outsized teacher-student ratios.

Some problems inspectors spot — say, an unattended pair of scissors or an exposed plug — can be fixed on the spot. Other common problems — like mismatched teacher-child ratios — might require extended follow-up and a compliance plan, says Mickelson. And that requires an adequate supply of inspectors, and the dollars to pay them.

Dunbar credits the state with making the licensing system fast and easy, with clear procedures and rules, but when it comes to the bigger question of how Oregon’s ECE programs have been funded and prioritized?

“I’m disappointed,” says Dunbar. “Other states have passed universal pre-K laws — New York, Illinois, California … we need to do better and we need to find a way to subsidize it.”

‘We have to get creative’

Parents are naturally most concerned with vetting the quality of their own child’s preschool (for tips on that, see our Preschool Vetting sidebar, page 23), but equally important, say Delgado, Dunbar and Mickelson, is joining the larger conversation about how our state supports its preschools, preschoolers and ECE educators.

Insufficient oversight, understaffed facilities, lack of training opportunities, high turnover due to low pay and benefits — all of this makes it harder for workers like Delgado to earn a living in this field.  

The average wage for a preschool teacher in Oregon in 2018 was $13.70 per hour, while kindergarten teachers made $38.80 per hour on average.

This means that directors like Dunbar must find increasingly creative ways to keep tuition rates low and teacher salaries competitive without letting teacher-student ratios balloon.

Dunbar mitigates turnover in her two preschools schools by giving teachers access to high-quality training, lots of support, emotional and positive discipline strategies, and workable scheduling and compensation, but it is a juggling act.

Preschool teachers are tired. Parents are tired, too. Dunbar sees this every day, and that’s why she’s seeking a permanent physical space for The Aspen Center. She envisions it as a place where parents and educators can attend trainings and seminars to support growth and healing, plus access self-care modalities like acupuncture and yoga — at a low cost and under one roof.

“I know their salary isn’t as much as it needs to be,” says Dunbar. “We have to get creative in how to support them, because it’s not happening any other way.”

Despite the challenges, ECE workers like Delgado remain passionate about high-quality early learning. Delgado is the Mid-Willamette chapter representative for the Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children (ORAEYC), a state affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a nonprofit membership association that promotes high-quality early learning and developmentally appropriate practices.

Through ORAEYC, she’s advocating for the profession — and the children — she loves. “These early years are the most formative,” says Delgado. “They are literally absorbing everything around them like a sponge — the good, the bad and the ugly.”  

‘Big and bold investments’

Mickelson gives big props to Oregon parents for the passage of the Student Success Act. They brought their concerns directly to legislators, she says, and that advocacy worked.

Better funding will help the state to streamline standards and procedures, says Mickelson, and an expansion of programs could shift the burden of the cost of quality preschool away from parents. But there’s deeper work to do.

“We’re looking forward in 2020 to engaging families more in understanding how they define quality and putting that together with brain science,” she says. “Hopefully [this is] the start of us making big and bold investments in our youngest children.”

Dunbar hopes that a better-funded ELD will mean more dollars for preschools like hers — not run under the state-funded model, but still committed to providing quality education and competitive wages.

On Delgado’s wish list: better compensation, full benefits, and high-level training for early childhood educators.

ORAEYC supports the push for universal preschool in Oregon, says Delgado — it would raise educational quality standards, encourage appropriate funding, and lend the ECE profession much-deserved legitimacy.

The county’s Preschool for All Task Force, too, is working to develop an implementation and funding plan for the universal preschool vision laid out in its 2019 report, and Oregon voters might even see a universal preschool ballot measure in 2020.

Meanwhile, ECE professionals like Delgado and Dunbar will keep speaking out about the crucial importance of high-quality, developmentally appropriate preschool education. And they want parents to join the chorus.

“I’ve worked in the field of education for over 20 years, and I believe in prevention versus intervention,” says Dunbar. “Give them a good strong start, and it will carry them, the research shows, through the second grade.”

Raising the bar will take a village, says Delgado, but parents have more power than they realize: “If we had more parents involved, I think our local and federal governments would be listening to our demands more. We need parents to be their child’s advocate. As educators, we’ll always be every child’s advocate, but we can’t continue doing it alone.”

Preschool Vetting: Where to Begin  

USE YOUR EYES

When you tour a school, ask yourself how inviting the space is. Is shelving accessible? How many toys and books are on hand? Does anything raise a red flag? And don’t forget to ask to see that preschool license!

QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DIRECTOR

» What’s your program’s philosophy?

» Tell me about the teachers’ qualifications. 

» Who else is around kids, and what are their qualifications?

» What are your turnover rates? (They’re often high, so ask, too, about how the director mitigates burnout.)

» Can I meet and speak with the teachers directly?

» Where can I see your school’s accreditations and quality ratings? (Remember: many accreditation programs exist, all are opt-in, and only full-day preschools can apply.)

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

» Visit the Oregon Early Learning Division’s website (oregonearlylearning.com) to read reports and inspection results, request compliance histories, and review/make complaints. You can also access resources for finding child care here.

» To request information about a specific facility, you can also call 2-1-1.

SOURCES: Adriana Delgado AND Stacey Dunbar

Become a Parent-advocate 

Read up on these initiatives to improve Oregon’s preschools, then spread the word!

✔   Raise Up Oregon, a statewide five-year plan for improving Oregon’s early learning system, aims to bring communities together in the service of improving ECE opportunities.

✔  The Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children (ORAEYC) promotes quality early-learning opportunities for children and supports ECE educators and workers.

✔  To support efforts to bring universal preschool to Multnomah County, visit the Universal Preschool NOW coalition at upnow2020.org, and Multnomah County’s Preschool for All Task Force at multco.us/preschool-all-task-force.

✔  The Aspen Center offers seminars, trainings, and self-care opportunities for parents and educators.  

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