Investing in Oregon Pre-K
Kids need affordable, high-quality early education now more than ever
The pandemic has wreaked havoc upon so many of our nation’s foundational supports. One of the most notable examples of this: early childhood care and education. This past year, COVID-19 forced the closure of many preschool providers across the country, leaving scores of families without the safe, reliable care they depend on for their children. Thankfully, Oregon was able to expand access to preschool by 113 slots despite pandemic difficulties. But, in order to see true pandemic recovery and give more children an opportunity to experience preschool, we must continue this momentum and further expand access.
We know that the first five years of a child’s life are critical to healthy brain development. Quality pre-K programs also help set the stage for future academic success. The nurturing environment created by early childhood programs allows for children to learn crucial social and emotional tools before entering kindergarten, which can lead to higher achievement in early math and literacy.
The foundation created by high-quality care and education can not only better prepare children to enter kindergarten, but can help them achieve success later on in their academic careers. Ensuring young Oregonians have access to high-quality pre-K can also help increase graduation rates and reduce behavioral problems later in life. I know because I grew up with divorced, low income, working class parents who struggled to find high quality care and education in the neighborhoods I grew up in. I feel lucky to have had a support system in my life that allowed my parents to provide quality care and a quality education for me. I know this is not the norm for most of the children who are impacted by low quality education and care. This is why it is so important for me to use my voice to represent those who don’t have a voice or who haven’t been taught, or shown that their voice matters. All children have the right to physical, emotional, and mental safety. In my experience I have found that unsafe children become unsafe adults and the cost to support unsafe adults increases exponentially; prisons, rehab, chronic unemployment, etc.
A 2020 report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that only approximately one-third of the state’s eligible children attended pre-K during the 2019-2020 school year. This means that 30,000 children went unserved. Accessibility gaps like these are even worse among Oregon’s communities of color and rural areas, where less than 10 percent of children had access to high-quality preschool.
As an Oregon business executive and a proud member of ReadyNation, my colleagues and I are heartened by our efforts over the past year, but remain concerned about the health of our early education system. Preschool programs not only help set kids on the path towards future achievement, but are critical to workforce development. Without access to high-quality child care and preschool programs, working parents are further constrained in the workplace. These constraints make it difficult to recruit and retain high-performing employees. If we are to recover fully from the pandemic, it is vital that employees are able to return to their jobs without child care worries. We will need sustained investment in the sector to ensure that early education deficiencies will not soon become a significant drain on our economy.
Over the past year, Oregon has begun expanding early care and education across the state, including the “Preschool for All” initiative, but there is more work to be done. The best way to continue strengthening our early childhood sector is for our lawmakers to prioritize adding more statewide pre-K slots, recruiting talented early educators, and expanding half-day programs to full-day in order to cover parents’ working hours.
These measures will require strong, bipartisan collaboration, but they will help ensure a secure future for our state. Increasing our long-term support for preschool programs will assist in pandemic recovery as parents return to work, providing kids with a safe, engaging environment during a crucial stage of their development. Even in a tough budget year, we cannot hesitate to preserve and continue expanding our early education system. Our sustained investment is crucial to the well-being of our youngest learners and workforce.