Multnomah County Says It Needs to Create 3,995 New Preschool Slots to Reach Universal Goal

Slides released by the county on the eve of a board hearing about its preschool program offer some new insights.

HEAD START: Children in the yard of a Preschool for All provider in Southeast Portland. (Brian Brose)

Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program, which aims to create 12,000 subsidized preschool slots by 2030, was by last fall struggling to meet the goals it laid out for Portland voters in 2020.

In a cover story last November, WW found that the county program was lagging on two critical pieces of investment: building out new preschool classrooms and recruiting a larger workforce. The same story found that the program had spent only $30 million of the $59 million it had budgeted for its first year.

The building of such capacity is important because voters approved Measure 26-214 on the promise that the tax on high-income households would fund tuition-free preschool for all children in Multnomah County by 2030.

Now, a slideshow obtained by WW ahead of a program briefing of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners tomorrow shows the program has still not spent a dollar of its facilities fund, the $16 million pot of money reserved for building new classrooms and expanding the capacity of existing classrooms. The slides also show the county must double the pace at which it creates entirely new preschool slots—meaning slots that did not exist prior to the program or were not licensed by the state—every year for the next six years if it wishes to reach its goal of universal preschool by 2030.

In total, the slides show, the program must create 3,995 entirely new preschool slots—including, according to county spokesman Ryan Yambra, “half-day slots that are exempt from state licensing requirements”—by 2030 to meet its goal of universality.

That the county now has identified that number is notable: WW pressed the county for more than a month last fall for how many entirely new slots the program would have to create to reach its goal of 12,000 preschool slots by 2030. The county said it couldn’t answer the question because “there were too many unknowns about the future of the child care industry to determine a percentage of how many new versus existing slots would be needed.”

Now, the county has determined that number: 3,995 entirely new slots.

And, in the program’s first two years, it’s created only 507 such slots.

“The total estimate of new and enhanced slots needed,” Yambra tells WW, “will evolve over time as we continue to learn from our implementation efforts.” About the $16 million facilities fund, $8 million of which the county carried over in unused funds from the prior year, Yambra said: “There is a soft launch of the fund underway right now, and the public launch will happen at the end of March.” Yambra says none of the $16 million has actually been spent yet.

Despite WW’s findings last fall about the program’s slow rollout, the county has always maintained that this was to be expected: The program needs time to pick up steam, so as the program creates more classrooms and gets more educators, the speed at which slots grow will gain momentum.

Meanwhile, the county has also updated the total number of free preschool slots it must create (both by converting private paid slots to free ones and creating entirely new slots) to 11,000. That’s down from the initial projection of 12,000 slots.

The slow start to Preschool for All mirrors the slow start of the county’s “Housing Multnomah Now” project that aimed to house 300 Portlanders by last June. It’s been over a year since County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson launched the program, and yet, according to a report by The Oregonian this week, the program has managed to house only 37 people. What’s more, according to The O, the county refused for weeks to answer reporters’ questions about how the county set its initial goal and quietly amended the targets as time passed.

The slides ahead of the Tuesday board briefing also display, as WW previously reported, the county’s belief that it must increase the preschool tax by 0.8% in 2026 to adequately fund the program. That increase is baked into the ballot measure passed in 2020, but county commissioners have the authority to strike down the increase with a majority vote if they believe it’s unnecessary. But by the county economist’s projections, not increasing the tax would send the program into an operating deficit from which it might never recover.

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