When Jessica Vega Pederson’s mom was in fourth grade, she did something extraordinary: She scored the highest in the entire school district on a standardized test.
“When I heard this story, I was so proud of my mom. I just thought, this young Mexican American girl was the best fourth-grader, right?” Pederson said.
But her mom wasn’t as proud of herself at the time — because she didn’t know her score. Her school never told her and she wouldn’t learn until many years later.
“She never knew her own potential,” Pederson, now a mom of two, said. “And the school never invested in her potential either.”
The story sticks with Pederson now, especially on Wednesday, following the win of a universal preschool measure in Multnomah County, Ore., where she lives. Pederson, the county commissioner, was one of the driving forces behind the measure.
“All of the work that I do is to make sure that all people and all kids get the best start in life … especially for kids like my mom,” she said.
The county, which includes Portland, voted Tuesday to implement a universal preschool program, following in the footsteps of Washington, D.C.; New York City; and San Antonio. According to a 2019 report from Child Aware of America, Oregon families paid an average of $1,127 a month for center-based infant care and $842 a month to put a 4-year-old in a child care center. Meanwhile, in 2018, the median household income in Oregon was just under $5,300 a month, the report said.
Only two states — Vermont and Florida — offer universal preschool programs that “are not capped by funding amounts, enrollment numbers or enrollment deadlines,” according to New America. Seven other states have near-universal programs, while six states offer no state-funded preschool at all.
“It feels incredible. This is such a win,” Pederson said Wednesday. “The vision of preschool — this has been in our community for so long, it’s like a dream come true for so many people.”
The ballot measure, dubbed Preschool for All, provides free, voluntary preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. It also increases the salary of preschool teachers, as well as classroom assistants, to a wage similar to kindergarten teachers. The program will be paid for through a tax on the highest income earners in the county.
According to Abbie Lieberman, a senior policy analyst on early and elementary education policy at the think tank New America, universal preschool policies have benefits for both children and parents. For children, she said, research has shown that high-quality preschool access leads to long-term development boosts for children, including increasing later high school graduation rates.
“And there’s also evidence that children benefit from economically integrated pre-K classrooms,” she said. “Universal access won’t guarantee economic integration, but it’s one step in the right direction.” For parents, it’s another year or two of free child care, which Lieberman calls workforce support. It’s proved even more crucial now, she says, as more and more parents, especially mothers, leave the workforce to care for their children during the pandemic.
Lieberman also praised the pay bumps for teachers and assistant teachers. “These professionals also have demanding and important jobs,” she said. “None of this should be low-wage work.”
Multnomah County’s universal preschool program will be mixed-delivery, meaning parents who want to enroll their children can choose from home-based, center-based or public-school-based preschool programs. This kind of approach, which Lieberman said parents tend to prefer because it allows them to place their child in a setting they feel comfortable in, was born out of a recommendation by a task force Pederson developed.
The same task force also helped center racial equity at the heart of the program, Pederson said.
She points back to the story of her mom. “The system wasn’t set up to give kids like my mom — Black and Brown kids, you know — what they need to succeed,” she said. When convening the task force on the measure, Pederson said she brought parents from different backgrounds to the table as well as culturally specific organizations. “We were able to start with a vision that was actually created by the parents of color,” she said.
Together, they looked at what other jurisdictions had done with their own universal preschool programs and incorporated what they learned into the policy, she said.
The program that will be put into place includes things Pederson says are important to parents and students of color. One of which is having a policy of no suspensions or expulsions for all participating preschool providers.
“That's the thing that we heard loud and clear from the parents,” she said. “We know that for kids of color, especially Black boys, the school-to-prison pipeline starts too early and can even start in preschool.”
Pederson could hardly contain her excitement on Wednesday for the initiative. She says she can’t wait to see the positive impact it has on students and their families. She also praised the larger Multnomah County community, which she said laid the foundation for the ballot measure.
Leigh Shelton was part of that effort. The community member, small-business owner and mom of a 2-year-old, was an organizer with Universal Preschool Now, a coalition that fought for the ballot measure. On Wednesday night, Shelton said she was proud of the work they accomplished.
“At one point we were collecting signatures, we had almost 500 volunteers collecting signatures just to get on the ballot,” she said. “The outpouring of community support and activism was shocking to me.” Shelton had previously come from a background working on union campaigns in another state, but this was her first time organizing in Oregon. She led a group of parents — mainly moms — and was excited to see how many people wanted to get involved in passing the universal preschool measure.
“These are the types of policies we need to support young families in this country,” she said. She said expanding access to preschool is a great tool to address wealth inequality in the classroom.
“It’s not everything. I think there’s a lot more we can do, but I think it’s a really good first step,” she said.
“I absolutely love that it’s a direct benefit for families,” she said. The mom, who is currently expecting twins, says she’ll be enrolling her children in preschool programs when it’s time for them. “It’s a no-brainer for kids to get that socialization,” she said.
And after overhearing her mom talk so passionately about preschool while on the campaign, Shelton’s toddler, Lucy, is ready to go.
“She told me, ‘I’m ready preschool,’” Shelton laughed. “I told her, ‘You’re ready for preschool’ — but not quite.”