Making Pre-K Possible

How Multnomah County won universal preschool

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In winter 2017, the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists for America (DSA) started a working group called Tax the Rich. "We wanted to redistribute resources from those who have them to those who really need them," said Emily von Gilbert, co-coordinator of the universal preschool campaign. The group talked about what could happen if the city levied a small tax on the wealthiest 5 percent of residents. What could you do with, say, $200 million a year? "We were like, 'oh, this could pay for an entire universal pre-K program. It's not a drop in the bucket. It's a solution to a problem,'" von Gilbert says. Childcare is extraordinarily pricey everywhere in the US—and Oregon is the fourth least affordable state for the cost of preschool. The average cost of childcare in Oregon per year is $10,061 for a four-year-old and $13,616 for a one-year-old. And childcare workers are terribly paid. Average childcare worker pay in Oregon is $24,680.

“You have to be so present eight hours a day. If you want to do this job really well, you need to put all of yourself into it,” says Lindsey Smith, and assistant preschool teacher. In 2019, Lindsey was making about $12.50 per hour working in a class of twenty to twenty-five kids. “It’s just enough for you to barely get by,” she says. “I think that everyone deserves to be paid more than that.” She first heard about the universal preschool campaign from a stranger she matched with on Tinder. Ballot measures are a way for people to take ideas for new laws directly to the voters. DSA and a coalition of local groups calling itself UPnow planned to propose a ballot measure funding universal preschool for all of Multnomah County. Lindsey was skeptical, but then the pandemic started, and she was laid off. “So I joined the DSA and started volunteering,” she says.

At the same time the UPnow coalition was organizing, Multnomah County’s government was studying how to expand pre-K access. “Quality early education makes a difference in some of the biggest concerns that people have—high school graduation rates, poverty, homelessness,” says County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “We have a really antiquated system that assumes a two-parent household where one parent stays home to take care of the children. If you look at other developed countries, they have systems like this—publicly funded childcare.” The county proposed its own ballot measure to fund more preschool—not universally, but expanding access to kids with limited access first. The county published a big report in summer 2019. To fund expanded preschool access, they would need to get voters to approve a new tax. For universal preschool, we would need 2,300 more early childhood educators. The County Commission can send a measure straight to the ballot, but regular citizens proposing a law have to jump through some hoops. The biggest one collecting about 23,000 signatures by four months before the election. It’s a strict deadline.The UPnow coalition officially filed their ballot measure in February 2020. “This measure isn’t just about getting every three- and four-year-old person into preschool. It also raises the wage for our preschool teachers, a huge issue for racial and gender equity,” says Sahar Muranovic, chief petitioner for UPnow and vice chair of the David Douglas school board. Before the group could start collecting signatures, they were hit with two legal challenges. As judges weighed the legal fight, precious signature-gathering time was running out, and the pandemic gripped the whole world. Finally, in mid-May, a judge sided with the preschool campaign. The group now had just five weeks to collect 23,000 signatures—in the middle of the pandemic. “Nobody we talked to who had run campaigns had ever had to do that,” von Gordon says. The campaign rallied 600 volunteers to collect signatures as fast as they could.

“I treated collecting signatures like a full-time job. I was out biking every day, to parks, protests, and events,” says Gabriel Matesanz, a preschool teacher and volunteer for the campaign. “This is how a democracy has to work. If we have a good idea people are passionate about, the only thing we can do is organize ourselves.”The campaign had just five weeks to get 23,000 signatures to land on the ballot. They got 32,000. In august, Multnomah County merged its “Preschool for all” measure with the DSA’ universal preschool measure so the two proposals wouldn’t compete on the ballot. On Election Day, the preschool plan passed by a whopping 64 percent of the vote—a huge victory! Emily von Gilbert says, “When things were really hard, through COVID, wildfires, all that stuff, this was something to hold onto, to keep you focused and motivated.” Muranovic says, “Last year was rough. This was one of those races that honestly gave us all involved so much hope. I just goes to show how much more we can do. Let’s keep this going.”

This comic is part of a series of four comics on democracy and civic engagement funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


3 comments have been posted.

Without the UP Now campaign, there wouldn't be some of the teacher salary provisions and funding mechanisms in the measure. This consolidation of two programs was important to get a better outcome (

Joseph Ramirez | June 2021 | Portland, OR

I am not challenging the content of this piece and I am grateful to the many signature gatherers and others who helped pass the measure. I am challenging the choice to tell this familiar story of white activists prevailing against the odds to win a victory for their cause, when in the same example of democracy and civic engagement there is a story for BIPOC leaders to tell. It is on us as white activists to de-center whiteness by giving up our place at the center of the narrative, no matter if our cause is just, our intentions are noble and our story rings true. The burden is also on white writers, artists and reporters to actively look for the roles that Black, Indigenous and other people of color play and to question white-centered narratives even if they are beautifully progressive, easy to relate to and make a good story. There was only room for one story of democracy and civic engagement in this zine. So the story of BIPOC parents and BIPOC elected leaders working together to craft and pass a measure to address race-based inequities...well, that story did not get told. Who gets to write or draw our history? White people.

Molly Day | May 2021 | Portland, Oregon

This comic is very problematic as it glosses over the fact that the County was already organizing a ballot measure with a group of BIPOC parents and providers, and that effort was being led by a woman of color. DSA, a White-led and predominantly White membership organization, knew of this effort and forged ahead with their own initiative anyway (largely copied from the County's measure). They were lucky that the Preschool for All campaign and County were willing to merge proposals and combine efforts when it became clear that the DSA proposal was not fiscally possible. Glossing over all of this is another act of White supremacy that the Portland Chapter of DSA needs to be held accountable for.

Danielle Alexander | May 2021 | Portland, Oregon

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