By Don McIntosh
They did it. In just five weeks, a union-backed grassroots campaign gathered 32,356 signatures on a ballot initiative to provide universal publicly-funded preschool for three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah County. That’s roughly one out of every 15 registered voters in Multnomah County, and nearly 10,000 more than the 22,686 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. More than 500 volunteers contributed to the signature gathering effort, and the campaign received over 2,000 single-signer petitions.
The Universal Preschool Now (UP Now) campaign turned in signatures July 6, and the county has until Aug. 5 to validate signatures and determine if the measure qualifies for the November 3, 2020, ballot.
UP Now was led by chief petitioners Suzanne Cohen, president of Portland Association of Teachers (PAT); Will Layng, director of Portland Jobs with Justice; and Sahar Muranovic, president of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization of Women. The campaign was endorsed by more than 30 groups, including at least 10 labor organizations: Northwest Oregon Labor Council, PAT, Reynolds Education Association, AFSCME Local 88, UFCW Local 555, ILWU, CWA Local 7901, PSU-AAUP, PCCFAP, and National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 82.
But legal challenges from the Portland Business Alliance delayed the start of the signature gathering effort for months. Amid a pandemic that made in-person signature gathering tricky, supporters weren’t sure it was possible to make it on the ballot.
“To do this in five weeks in a pandemic, it’s just incredible,” said UP Now spokesperson Mary King, a retired economist and the former president of PSU-AAUP, the full-time faculty union at Portland State University. “I think there’s a real hunger to do something big and positive that we can accomplish locally.”
PAT, which represents 4,000 educators at Portland Public Schools, played a big role. Cohen, a Roosevelt High School health teacher and one of the chief petitioners, said classroom teachers know the value of preschool. When the initiative went before PAT’s 100-strong representative assembly, endorsement was unanimous and enthusiastic. Oregon Education Association—PAT’s parent organization—sent word about the campaign to every member in Multnomah County, and teachers ended up well-represented among the volunteers.
“This campaign showed how much passion people have about the subject,” said Cohen, whose term as PAT president ended June 30. “We want to see it for every child. And we want to see the best skilled professionals in front of our students.”
Funded by a progressive income tax on the top 5% of income tax payers in the county, the measure would not only guarantee free preschool to every child, but would guarantee that preschool teachers get a living wage, and an unobstructed right to unionize if they choose to. [Read the full text of the measure here.]
Right now, preschool is a heavy financial burden for parents, costing on average $9,396 a year per child in Multnomah County, even while preschool teachers earn low pay with few benefits.
“Preschool is one of the most effective strategies we know for reducing inequality and poverty,” King said. “And the most powerful impact is on the most disadvantaged communities. It disproportionately benefits brown, Black and other kids of color. It improves their chances in school, but it also benefits them because it helps their parents work more hours, get more training, and it takes stress off parents.”
Who could oppose such a plan? Well, possibly the Portland Business Alliance. Portland Business Alliance spokesperson Amy Lewin says the business group’s board has taken no official position on the measure. But the group mounted two legal challenges that delayed signature gathering, and is threatening a third one. The day after supporters turned in signatures, PBA attorney Gregory Chaimov of Davis Wright Tremaine wrote to Assistant Multnomah County Attorney Catherine Thomas saying there will be a court challenge if the County approves the initiative for the ballot. The basis for the challenge appears to be that a grassroots coalition couldn’t possibly have gotten that many signatures in that short a time.
“This is pure harassment,” said King, the UP Now campaign spokesperson, about the threatened challenge.
Heading for the November ballot, the UP Now initiative faces one other big complication: Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson has been working since 2018 to craft a proposal for a more modest preschool program known as Preschool For All, which is also aimed at the November 2020 ballot. Whereas UP Now would start in high-poverty neighborhoods and expand to all three- and four-year-olds within seven years, Preschool For All would target students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities, starting with 500 spots to be placed by minority community nonprofit groups, and would aim to cover 80% of low-income kids within 10 years. The UP Now proposal would raise an estimated $260 million a year, about double the $130 million a year that the Preschool For All proposal aims to raise. A spokesperson for the Preschool For All campaign said final language for the proposal will likely go to County Commissioners in late July.
“My hope is we could get these two campaigns together,” King says. “I hope they see our success at gathering signatures as great news, that they can think bigger.”