Policymaking, like a multi-colored, splatter-coated Jackson Pollock painting, is messy art. But when you get the balance right, it’s priceless and worth a closer look.
Nearly a year ago now, in my corner of the country—Multnomah County, Ore., which encompasses the city of Portland—something remarkable happened. We did get the balance right. After nearly a decade of organizing, advocacy, planning and hand-wringing, we passed a Preschool for All initiative. And not just any initiative—one that was carefully and thoughtfully designed to put families with the least support at the front of the line and put early childhood educators on par with their K-12 counterparts. We hope it serves now as a potential model for free, universal preschool programming in the United States.
Our initiative—approved by voters in November 2020—addresses racial inequity and some of the trickiest pieces of the “trilemma,” as it is sometimes called, of achieving high quality for kids, affordability for families, and living wages for teachers.
We aligned quality standards with state early learning systems, then went further by prohibiting suspensions and expulsions in preschool (which disproportionately affect Black and brown boys) and providing behavioral development supports to child care providers and parents. We sought to protect the supply and cost of care for children from birth to age 3 by building in grants to child care providers who offer those slots. And we prioritized supports for family-care (also called home-based) providers who are disproportionately lower income and non-white. (Too many universal preschool programs in the U.S., despite their best intentions, leave out these critical elements, and educators, families and young learners end up suffering because of it.)
To say we’re proud of those policy achievements would be an understatement. But we didn’t just get there because research pointed the way or because policymakers had the insights. As a new report about our victory shows, our success can be attributed to something even more basic and essential that so many people miss.
Back to Basics
Researchers at Dialogues in Action (DIA), a Portland-based research and strategy firm, interviewed 44 people who were engaged in Multnomah’s Preschool for All effort. Their subsequent report, “A Pathway to Success,” which was released in September, shares keys to victory; lessons learned; and what went right when crisis, conflict and a pandemic all converged.
As one of the architects of the initiative myself—supporting the tremendous grassroots, parent-led efforts—it’s interesting to realize in hindsight what was happening in real-time to advance the measure to voters and win the campaign.
When I say that our effort centered the most basic and essential elements, I’m talking about our commitment to racial equity, community/parent voice, and grassroots coalition-building. But baking in these components can be easier said than done—or worse, planned and never prioritized, if not ignored altogether. Either way, the research affirms that how we centered these made a real difference in the policy and victory.
For example, we asked from the very beginning—and indeed throughout our nine-year effort— “What is best for ALL of our kids, especially those furthest from opportunity now?” This provided us a clear shared value to align the varied life experiences, diverse perspectives and divergent viewpoints at the table.
In the earliest days of the effort, it was a breakthrough for the group to collectively review and affirm the data showing that it was kids of color, those whose home language was not English and/or kids experiencing poverty that should be our priority. These children had disproportionately lower third-grade testing scores and higher representation in our houseless and hungry population, among other indicators of high need. This priority population, affirmed in a vote of our collective charter, set the course for a focused effort that would eventually serve all children in our community, but first serve those with the fewest opportunities and least support now.
Laying the Foundation
Our eventual victory was hardly an overnight success—I personally worked alongside parents and community-based organization leaders for more than nine years on this before we won the initiative last November.
Early on, the research about the benefits of universal early education and care was clear, but as disparate players, we lacked a collective mission, a focused strategy and a shared power. One of our first charges was to come together and create a “big WE,” as I liked to call it, which united us under the same umbrella to work toward our shared early childhood goals. Laying that foundation was essential to the endurance it took to achieve our strong policy and big victory.
Another foundational element of our success was understanding and taking advantage of all of the diverse resources at our fingertips, not just money or positional power.
While I participated in this effort as a foundation/philanthropy leader from Social Venture Partners, the financial resources and brainpower my organization supplied were never considered more important than the experience and perspective of others. Petra, a Latina mom who participated in the Task Force as a key representative of the Parent Accountability Council, brought the family experience forward; Andrea, the executive director of Family Forward Oregon brought experience negotiating policy wins and advocacy muscle; and countless others brought social networks, information or political power.
By casting a wide net of who was involved and how they were involved, we were able to both develop policy that worked for the families who would someday, hopefully, access the early childhood education system and win the campaign in a way that felt like a community-wide victory, not just one policymaker’s.
Our long arc of progress was not easy or linear. It was never one person’s job or one politician’s signature issue. There were moments when it seemed that it might die because there were too many other community priorities taking center stage.
Up until about a year before we sent our initiative to the voters, there were two distinct universal preschool efforts underway in Multnomah County, moving on parallel tracks, but led by different groups with different origins and goals. This naturally created conflicts between us that ran the risk of destroying the potential for a universal preschool victory by either group. The pandemic and community outcry for racial justice before the election could have distracted or derailed our efforts as well, but instead they became reasons to advance it. The researchers called these “Adaptations Along the Way.” I am here to tell you that adaptation was the only constant in our effort, and I must underscore and emphasize the importance of dedicated, diverse players constantly focused on a strategy to advance the goal as well as professional, consistent facilitation to herd and focus the players involved.
Of course, our work is not done yet. The victory was sweet, but success will only be achieved when our program is implemented with integrity and when we see clear evidence that it is indeed serving the needs of families and schools in our community. That work has already begun.
In the meantime, we hope that many more communities will look at what we have already accomplished in Multnomah County and replicate our comprehensive policies for the benefit of children, families and teachers. The ultimate victory, though, would be having our methods replicated and improved upon—in early childhood education or other policy arenas—not just because it helps children, families and educators, but because it lifts up unheard voices, makes everyone an accomplice to the victory, and creates connections among people who would otherwise have no purpose or promise of working together.
Just as fine art appreciates over time—like a Jackson Pollock original—those benefits continue paying dividends for us as a community. I know they would for other communities as well.