How to talk about universal preschool

An interview with Mary King from the successful campaign, Preschool for All in Multnomah Co, OR.

In a follow-up to my recent post about Biden’s American Families Plan, I reached out to Lydia Kiesling, a writer and activist who has written publicly about her involvement with the Portland, OR, area’s Preschool for All initiative that passed last November. Lydia very kindly put me in touch with Mary King, Professor of Economics Emerita at Portland State University, who worked on the plan.

Mary kindly answered my questions about:

  • How to talk to others about the importance of early childhood education

  • How to talk about using tax dollars to fund these programs

  • The importance of raising teacher salaries

  • Potential problems, pitfalls, and barriers to passing the American Families Plan

  • Advice for people who want to get involved

I think what Mary’s answers say the most to me is that people care about children and they care about education. When we talk to other people about childcare, it’s important to listen to their points of view first. From there we can address concerns individually:

  • What does it mean to open access to the community?

  • How will communities and families be involved in the process of deciding how these programs will look?

  • What sorts of flexibility should we consider offering to families—other than the normal 7am - 6pm hours—to accommodate the changing face of the workforce?

  • How will we pay for these programs, and how will that affect the bottom lines of all families? (This answer felt like a shift from the normal rhetoric. Please check out her answer below.)

I’d like to thank Lydia for making the connection and Mary for her thorough and thoughtful answers to my questions.


I live in Tennessee, where we pride ourselves on being Volunteers, but many folks have deeply conservative views on the role of government and how that government might interfere with family life. What advice do you have for talking to others about the importance of early childhood education?

Of course, I live in a liberal area, but perhaps this kind of approach might be helpful?

There's such a strong educational, economic and health case for investment in universal preschool that states with universal or near-universal preschool include "red states" like Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia.  Advocates for universal preschool favor an approach called "mixed delivery," which is solidly based in the local community and aims to give families choices, so that they can find their best fit.  Small, home-based preschool providers, non-profit groups, public schools and religious groups can all apply for a contract with the city, county or state to participate in the program.

Before the presidential election, a number of people in my area whose household income is less than 100K could be heard complaining about Biden’s proposal to raise the tax rate on those who make over 400K. How do we talk to people (civilly, and in a way that makes sense) about taxing the rich to pay for social welfare programs? Is there any language you felt worked?

A lot of people don't realize that the responsibility for supporting our schools, infrastructure and public services has dramatically shifted off the households in the top ten percent and onto working and middle-class families. 

Meanwhile, income inequality has soared, with the gains of the past 40 years concentrated at the top and stagnant or falling wages for the majority.  We need to return to a tax structure like the one we had from the 1930s through the 1970s, when economic gains were more shared and taxes were paid by those who could do so most comfortably.

But really, what we found in canvassing, at least here, was that people were very attracted to the idea of free, high quality, year-round, universal preschool with lots of choices for families, and less interested in how to pay for it, other than knowing that they wouldn't be taxed. 

A major part of the measure in Multnomah County was increasing the average income for pre-K teachers. Can you speak to why this is such an important part of the proposal?

Preschool teachers, even those with college degrees, earn just half what elementary school teachers do, and teachers' aides just over the minimum wage - often with no benefits or paid time for preparation or meetings with co-workers.  The result is that staff turnover is very high, which harms the relationships with children, their families and other staff that is critical for quality, and wastes the training and experience of people drawn to this work. 

Fair wages that better reflect the value created by preschool are essential to retain experienced, dedicated, skilled people.  Fewer than one in five employed women with college majors in preschool work with young children, because they can't support their families on the pay in early childhood education, as compared to the more than three-quarters of women with college majors in nursing who work as nurses, with better pay.

What do you think about Biden’s proposal for extending education to 3 and 4 year-olds and to community colleges? Anything that stands out to you as problematic?

Biden's proposal would be a terrific step forward, and long overdue.  The U.S. is alone among better off countries in dedicating such a very small part of its budget to young children and families, and hasn't seriously considered a big, sorely-needed investment in children since Richard Nixon vetoed bi-partisan legislation to support child care around the country.

Education for young children is really high quality care, attentive to the social and emotional development that helps children thrive in kindergarten and elementary school.  Investment in early childhood education is our best investment in improving high school graduation rates, college attendance and future earnings. 

One challenge that remains is the lack of a plan for families with members who work "non-traditional" hours, as an increasing number of people do.  Retail, restaurant, hotel, health care, home health care and construction workers often work on weekends, early in the morning, in the evenings and even overnight, in the case of hospital workers.  Their children need education and care options outside "traditional" work hours, that will probably require that providers be incentivized to provide that care with higher compensation.

What do you see as the biggest barriers to getting Biden’s proposal passed in Congress and subsequently rolled out to States?

I am worried that they won't be able to get a majority of Senators to support the American Family Plan, except perhaps in a very watered down form.  One problematic element I see already is the idea that the wage floor should be $15 an hour for the workforce.  That is just $30,000 a year, full-time and they are certainly not proposing that we build physical infrastructure while paying people $30,000 a year! 

Early childhood education and care is social infrastructure and even a better investment in our future economic productivity than are our roads and bridges. I think that the federal wage floor should at a minimum be $15 an hour or 1.5 times the local minimum wage, whichever is higher, and that there should be a wage ladder that increases with experience, skill, education and professional development provided by the program. Lead teachers should be paid like elementary school teachers, and the whole workforce needs benefits and to be paid for all of their work, including preparation time and meetings with co-workers.

Are there any pitfalls that others working for Universal preschool should be aware of? Anything that did not go as planned or that you’d wish you’d done differently?

One big pitfall, I think, is to be talked into a means-tested program that's only available to people with incomes below some threshold.  Preschool and childcare are unaffordable for the majority, outcomes are better for the least-advantaged kids in universal rather than means-tested programs and ongoing political support is much better for universal programs.  Head Start is quite well respected, but after 50 years is still underfunded and serves only a fraction of the kids who are eligible, and too-often with a part-day or part-year program that doesn't allow parents to work or pursue further education or training.

What ideas do you have for people who would like to get involved but don’t know where to start locally?

I would say that the best first steps are to gather a few like-minded people, research programs elsewhere, talk to a lot of people and groups about whether they would support a campaign for universal preschool and what they would want it to look like and get political advice from others who have successfully run campaigns.  We were new at this process, and learned A LOT as we went along!


Who’s with me!?

Thank you to my On Deck writing group Juliet for the idea to reach out to other writers and the support when I nearly chickened out on follow up :)

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