PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah County voters passed universal preschool and a new personal income tax on their ballots in November 2020.
Seven months later, where do things stand? We learned providing free preschool to every three- and four-year-old in the county will be a slow ramp-up.
In one of the area's largest preschool programs, children choose how they learn. Pipster Prep owner Tessa Steinberg wants to give every kid this same opportunity.
"We cost what the going rate costs for preschool," Steinberg said. "And it is hard, it's not accessible for a lot of families."
She's excited about the promise that quality education will be more accessible through the county's new Preschool for All program.
The program was created when voters in Multnomah County passed a new tax last year that promised to cover preschool tuition for every three- and four-year-old in the county.
"I'm hoping to obviously be one of the first providers to be able to jump on board because it sounds like there's going to be a lot of support for providers as far as helping us pay our teachers better," Steinberg said.
Despite her excitement, she might be waiting a while before she sees any kids enrolled in her school through Preschool for All.
The first kids to benefit from the program won't see their tuition covered until fall 2022. The county expects to enroll between 500 to 1,000 kids at first, out of an estimated 11,000 eligible preschoolers.
After that, the program will grow incrementally until the end of the decade. The county estimates they won't have enough money to cover all preschoolers who will seek out the program until 2030.
Multnomah County commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson championed the program for years before putting it on the ballot.
"We have thousands of children in this county that don't have an opportunity to succeed," Vega Pederson said. "All of us as a community benefit from this long-term, stable impact in preschool that's going to improve educational outcomes and economic outcomes."
The county's new Preschool & Early Learning Division Director Leslee Barnes said kids who don't have any access to preschool will get first dibs.
"I do think it’ll be competitive. And I think we will really take time to find those children that haven’t had this opportunity that maybe could benefit more than another child," Barnes said. "It’ll be difficult to make those choices and hard to hear, probably, for some families."
Preschools can apply this fall to participate, while families will apply early next year.
Barnes said they're reaching out to providers now, mostly providers of color who serve non-English speakers.
But several preschool owners told KGW they need more answers about how the program will work and when they could get slots.
"I believe in the overall mission of it, for sure, and I think it will be a really good thing for our city. It's just a matter of working out all the logistics," Steinberg added.
Preschool for All will be paid for with a new personal income tax that started this year on high-income earners.
Joint filers making over $250,000 are taxed at 1.5%. Those making over $400,000 are taxed at 3%. The rates rise in 2026. People who make that amount and work in Multnomah County will get taxed even if they don't live in the county.
If the pace of the rollout seems slow, consider the logistics involved in creating a new tax.
The county had to come up with a way to collect the tax; they're paying the City of Portland to do that. It's initially investing about $13 million to stand up the tax collection system in the upcoming fiscal year, and will pay the city millions every year into the future.
The county also won't see most of the revenue from the first year until next April when 2021 income taxes are due.
County economists consider the tax a "volatile" revenue source since incomes go up and down.
"The underlying economic activity that the tax applies to it just tends to go up pretty quickly during economic expansion and go down quickly during recessions," Multnomah County economist Jeff Renfro said.
Over the next fiscal year starting in July, the new tax is expected to bring in about $108 million, according to the county. Revenue should rise to $147 million four years later. That's much less than proponents pitched to voters before putting it on the ballot.
Much of the initial money will go to prep work this next year; none of it pays for kids in actual seats yet.
"It's getting ready for all the stuff they have to do before kids are actually in the classroom," Renfro added.
The county also plans to hold some of the initial tax revenue in reserves for the future. As they add more slots, Renfro said some years will be more expensive than others.
"This has been part of the problem the whole time," Renfro told KGW. "We're implementing revenue smoothing where we're collecting a little bit more than we need for any particular year in the beginning but setting that aside for when we experience deficits later on."
In addition to covering tuition, the county also has to focus on growing preschool capacity.
Throughout the pandemic, Multnomah County has lost about 36% of its child-care providers, which totals about 500.
"Before the pandemic there was already a child care desert," Barnes said.
She said the county is investing in infrastructure and looking into ways places can expand easier.
"We have to look at high rents in Portland, access to commercial space, barriers to licensing," Barnes said, "If our community really supports us — and we saw they did because we had overwhelming voter support — what are the things that we can do to make those barriers go away? Are there incentives for landlords, for example, to build out space in a commercial space they’re developing?"
Some providers worry the county is running out of time to grow the system in home settings, school settings and child care centers before more kids enter it.
"There's not enough spaces that have the correct occupancy to be child care centers," Steinberg said. "All of our locations are usually full every year so it would really be finding additional space in order to grow. And in the past it's been really hard."