For Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, working on the county’s universal preschool measure—which passed on November 3—was “a bright light in a year when there weren’t too many of them.”
Vega Pederson was one of the architects of the measure, which was a joint effort between the county’s Preschool for All task force and Universal Preschool Now (UP Now), a coalition of unions and progressive groups, including the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of American (DSA). Now, the people behind the measure are touting their campaign—and win—as a lesson in how to pass progressive policy at the local level through a combination of grassroots advocacy and a community-led planning process. They’re also looking forward to what comes next, which could stretch far beyond the Multnomah County line.
“We’re starting to get a lot of national attention,” said Emily von W. Gilbert, an UP Now coordinator. “It’s because this is one of the few programs in this space that’s a full solution, not just a bandaid.”
Years before this measure appeared on the November 2020 ballot, there were two campaigns building up to it, running on parallel tracks.
One of those plans kicked off in 2018, when Vega Pederson convened a Preschool for All task force to begin looking into the feasibility of expanding preschool access in the county. Vega Pederson said her interest in improving education access was inspired by a story her mother told her as a child. When her mother was in fourth grade, she earned the highest score on a school district-wide math aptitude test—a score that could easily make her college-bound. But, Vega Pederson said, her mother didn’t learn about that top score until years later, in high school. She believes this was because her mother was a Mexican-American girl who wasn’t expected to succeed academically.
“She shared that story with me and my sisters,” Vega Pederson said. “It hit home that the system doesn’t support all kids the same way.”
With that lesson in mind, Vega Pederson designed the Preschool for All task force to “lead with race,” and include members from a diverse range of community groups and BIPOC advocacy organizations. That task force identified necessities to preschool access that later became key pieces of the ballot measure—including the idea that families should have options when it comes to languages and culturally-specific preschool curricula, and that daycare before or after school should be provided at no cost to parents. The task force also included preschool providers to ensure that they would be a part of the plan, rather than having to compete with it.
The task force included Lydia Gray-Holifield, who also sits on the Early Learning Multnomah Parent Accountability Council, a local group that advocates for early learning opportunities for underserved communities. She said one idea advanced by the task force is that student suspensions and expulsions should be barred under the plan’s framework. Gray-Holifield pointed out that BIPOC children, particularly Black children, are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school, and that starting that in preschool accelerates the “school to prison pipeline.”
“This one measure is giving brown, Black, and Indigenous children and families hope,” she said. “We’re building a foundation, and saying to these families, ‘We believe in your child… and we want to see you successful.”
As the county’s task force began planning what expanded preschool access could look like, a separate effort was underway among progressive Portland activists, including a newly formed Portland DSA chapter.
It began with the city of Portland’s 2018 budget process, when the city was looking at cutting funding for community centers and public parks.
“It was just appalling to go to these budget hearings and watch them pit these communities against each other,” said Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of Portland DSA. “People were having to show up to these hearings year after year, saying ‘Please don’t cut these programs. Please don’t cut my job’—these are things they rely on. So we started a campaign called ‘Tax the Rich’...so we could fund some of these things that are always on the chopping block, year after year.”
The plan was to launch a citywide campaign to impose an income tax on Portland’s top earners to fund a progressive cause.
“We had the funding mechanism first,” said von W. Gilbert, “and then we later decided what we wanted to fund.”
After consulting community organizations and Portland State University economist Mary King, the group decided to use the funding mechanism for universal preschool, and make it a county-wide campaign rather than limiting it to Portland. A key tenet of their plan was to ensure preschool workers earned a living wage. Portland DSA joined with teachers’ unions and other local organizations to form the UP Now coalition.
In addition to recognizing that preschool access was sorely needed for middle- and low-income families, von W. Gilbert said the group chose to take on this issue because it was achievable at the local level, and seemed like a smart sell to voters.
“It was small enough to win,” she said, “but it’s big enough to matter.”
Unlike the Multnomah County plan, which was able to secure a spot on the November 2020 ballot through a county board of commissioners’ vote, the UP Now proposal had to gather a minimum of 23,000 voter signatures by July 5, 2020 to make it on the ballot. A legal challenge from business interests set the coalition back in its timeline, leaving them only about a month—in the midst of a pandemic—to gather the required signatures.
The team launched an aggressive volunteer signature-gathering campaign—which included canvassing at the city’s racial justice protests, which were at that point seeing attendance in the hundreds and thousands. They managed to gather over 30,000 signatures by the deadline, securing a spot on the November ballot.
At this point the two separate campaigns—Multnomah County’s task force and the UP Now coalition—were very much aware of each others’ existence and shared goals. But the two camps were initially unable to come together because of differences in their processes; while the county’s team was focused on using polling to determine a funding mechanism that voters would approve, UP Now was committed to its “Tax the Rich” framework from the start.
And the groups’ timeframes were significantly different. The county task force was considering funding the measure with a staggered tax on high-income earners over a drawn out period of time, meaning it could take years to see a fully funded universal preschool program—though the county would prioritize BIPOC children when rolling the program out. UP Now, on the other hand, was proposing a measure that would fund the plan outright, and immediately.
“It wasn’t that [the Preschool for All task force] was ideologically opposed to that,” von W. Gilbert said. “It was more the case that the county as an entity was a little more risk-averse… I think our job was to build the confidence that this was a winning vision.”
While UP Now’s work proved the idea of universal preschool was popular with county voters, the county’s task force brought its own advantages to the table. Vega Pederson said that, because the county had more time to finalize its ballot measure language, it also had the benefit of conducting a second revenue estimate after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ensuring that the tax on high-income earners would still produce enough funding for the plan to succeed.
After it became clear that both measures were headed for the November ballot, both campaigns recognized that having dueling preschool measures would hurt their shared cause. Just weeks after UP Now met the signature threshold, they announced they would be merging with Multnomah County’s campaign.
UP Now advocates said the merger was successful because the two groups were able to agree on three main points: The program would be universal, it would guarantee a minimum wage for preschool workers at $18 an hour, and it would be achieved through a tax on high-income earners that impacts less than 10 percent of the county’s residents.
“Because of the different timelines, Universal Preschool Now had done a fantastic job of getting out over the summer and increasing the awareness of preschool for all because of the signature gathering process,” Vega Pederson said. “They had also done a lot of great coalition building with childcare workers, which was fantastic too.”
After the two teams merged, it was an easy glide to victory—Multnomah County voters approved the measure with 64 percent of the vote.
“I do think it’s a pretty amazing thing that we could have these two efforts of bringing quality universal preschool to Multnomah County at the same time,” Vega Pederson said. “To be able to come together and pass that vision with voters, it was such a highlight on Election Day.”
Work is now underway on making Multnomah County one of the first jurisdictions in the country to offer universal preschool—the county recently released the job description for the program director, and plans to open its first classroom in 2022. Meanwhile, the campaign’s success is drawing national attention, including in the New York Times. Advocates who campaigned on the measure are drawing lessons from its success, and have advice for other counties, cities, and states that hope to follow suit.
For Vega Pederson, the fact that the plan was community-driven and BIPOC-focused was paramount to its success.
“People looking at using this as a model, they need to be aware that this was how we did it, having a large table of community members,” she said. “It would’ve been much easier if we could hire some great consultant to come in… but that’s not what we did. I didn’t have any interest in doing it that way.”
UP Now’s von W. Gilbert said that the coalition is currently assessing how it can help other preschool access campaigns succeed.
“Right after the election, when it was clear that we’d won, we started getting questions from people in Washington and Clackamas counties, and statewide,” she said. “Someone wrote an email to us from Utah that said, ‘I’ll get in the car and meet you tomorrow if you tell me how you did this.’ We’re getting a huge amount of interest, because this is a landmark measure.”
For Sahar Muranovic, a chief petitioner of UP Now’s measure who became co-chair of the final Preschool for All campaign, engaging preschool teachers was key to the campaign's success. Muranovic added that the measure’s victory was part of a national trend coming out of this election—one in which voters across the country were willing to pass progressive funding measures, even if they also supported conservative candidates.
“In Florida, they passed $15 an hour while voting for Trump,” they said.
Portland DSA is taking that lesson to heart. Katbi Smith said the organization is now eyeing possible similar “Tax the Rich” campaigns for healthcare, housing, unemployment benefits, transit, and publicly owned utilities.
For Gray-Holifield, who sat on the Preschool for All task force, the measure’s success in Multnomah County has her excited to “take on the nation.”
“This movement is just the beginning of what could be so much more,” she said. “When a child has education, their dreams and aspirations of become endless. This needs to happen in every community, and every state.”