Portland Is on Its Way to Winning Universal Preschool

In Portland, Oregon, a coalition of parents, childcare workers, socialists, unions, and progressive organizations has collected tens of thousands of signatures to put a universal preschool measure on the ballot — all in five weeks, and in the middle of a pandemic.

A family in Portland, Oregon collects signatures for the Universal Preschool Now campaign. Universal Preschool NOW / Facebook

For a few months after cities and states across the country began implementing stay-at-home orders to forestall the spread of COVID-19, many on the Left feared a political chilling effect. The abrupt end of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in early April intensified the ominous feeling that the Left’s momentum, which had accelerated for years with no sign of reversal, would find no outlet and grind to a standstill.

In the last weekend of May, that fog of doubt lifted as first hundreds, then thousands, then eventually hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the police murder of George Floyd. June saw the continuation and growth of the street protests, as well as victories for democratic socialist electoral campaigns undertaken in difficult conditions in Pennsylvania and New York.

In July, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) secured another electoral victory in Texas, while socialists and working-class people in Seattle successfully mobilized to tax large corporations, Amazon chief among them, to provide coronavirus relief, and fund social housing and a Green New Deal.

We can add to that list of surprising victories the collection of over thirty thousand signatures in Portland, Oregon, to put an initiative on the ballot to provide universal, free, full-time, and year-round preschool to all three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah County. The Universal Preschool Now (UP Now) campaign, a coalition of thirty groups that includes ten labor organizations and a strong DSA presence, organized the successful signature drive in just five weeks.

While the pandemic made organizing much harder, it also brought the problems with the standard childcare model into sharper relief. “The pandemic was a wake-up call,” says Emily Von Gilbert, an UP Now organizer and DSA member.“The revenue model for providers just fell completely apart with the pandemic. Over fifty percent of providers are wiped out already.”

The disorganization and fragility of childcare provision became extremely apparent, says Von Gilbert, leading to an increased openness to and appetite for novel solutions. “In the spring, when parents started getting emails from providers asking them if they could keep paying tuition, a lot of people started thinking, ‘What would it actually look like to be supported as a parent in our society?’”

Sahar Yarjani Muranovic, a chief petitioner for UP Now campaign, echoes Von Gilbert’s assessment. “Our current global pandemic has really exacerbated things. People are realizing how much is being put on our families, and how we lack a basic safety net,” says Muranovic, who is the executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and is also on the steering committee of Portland DSA. “The glaring inequalities in our system are right in front of us.”

Muranovic and Von Gilbert both credit Portland DSA with developing a revenue mechanism early on. Written under the direction of labor economist Mary King, who is a member of the chapter, it levies a 3.9 percent marginal income tax on the top 5 percent of earners. The mechanism was developed before the UP Now campaign began as part of a Portland DSA “tax the rich” initiative. “Then we took it around to a bunch of organizations that we’ve been close to over the years and asked them what they would want to see the money go to,” says Von Gilbert. Universal preschool topped the list.

Once the campaign idea became concrete, major organizations were quick to climb on board, including the Portland Association of Teachers, Portland Jobs With Justice, and Oregon NOW. The entire campaign was volunteer-run. “DSA was sort of the core of making sure that everything moved along,” says Von Gilbert, “but it was always with the consent and assistance of all the participating organizations.”

The actual policy-writing was done in multiple stages, with feedback from a wide variety of organizations including several unions. Starting in the second week of June, the campaign mobilized over 500 volunteers to collect well over the twenty-three thousand signatures necessary to get on the ballot.

Most striking, says Muranovic, was “the amount of parents and preschool teachers who really wanted to be part of this process and took their own time to try to get these signatures.” Parents and preschool teachers are the two groups suffering the greatest consequences from the upset in the childcare system caused by the pandemic.

Many preschool teachers are unsure if their employment will be renewed after the pandemic passes, or are certain that it won’t, as many providers have folded. Meanwhile parents are now struggling to look after or secure childcare for their young children, often on top of work responsibilities whether inside the home or outside of it, and wondering where they’ll send them when normal life resumes.

Volunteers from these groups were naturally forthcoming, but the UP Now campaign also sought to provide organizational structure to their involvement, creating opportunities for parents and childcare worker volunteers to express what they wanted from the policy, build relationships with each other, and do campaign outreach to others in their situation. For DSA, says Von Gilbert, “the campaign is the focus, but this is also an organizing project. What we want people to do is learn how to organize together to build power together.”

The campaign was delayed in its start time not only by the obstacles presented by the coronavirus pandemic, but also by legal opposition from the Portland Business Alliance, which sought to stymie the effort. “KinderCare is one of the largest private preschool entities in the US, and they are here as well,” explains Muranovic. “So there has been some pushback from the business side of things, because we want this to be universal and free and that would hurt profits.” Having failed to stop the initiative from proceeding to collect signatures, opponents have now introduced a competing “watered-down version,” says Von Gilbert.

The UP Now campaign has sought to explicitly frame universal preschool as a feminist and working-class issue. It is working-class women, and often working-class women of color, who suffer the most from underpaid and precarious childcare jobs, which the proposal would regulate, stabilize, expand, and improve.

The same demographics are often the ones left without options when they can’t find or afford decent childcare close to home. “Sometimes it can cost forty percent of people’s incomes here to pay for preschool for one child, which is just obscene,” Muranovic says. “What does that mean in the long run for that person’s economic prospects? It just continues to exacerbate the inequalities that we face.”

If the measure is successful in November, the resulting universal preschool program will enroll an estimated thirteen thousand children in Multnomah County, Oregon. Those children will see lifelong benefits from quality preschool, their families will feel an enormous economic weight lifted off their shoulders, and a whole category of currently unorganized workers will be integrated into the public sector. If the UP Now campaign is victorious, it will be a win for the working class.