Last year, Lydia Kiesling and her husband decided they couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore. Her husband made a steady income, and Kiesling knew she could bring in a certain amount of money every month as a freelance writer, but housing in San Francisco is notoriously expensive. Just as expensive were preschool and childcare for their two daughters: At one point Kiesling and her husband were paying $3,145 a month for this care, what Kiesling told me would be considered “cheap” for San Francisco prices.
Kiesling’s husband began a job search that eventually landed their family in Portland, Oregon, where preschool was slightly cheaper, but still a significant chunk of a family’s income. It was also where a years-long campaign for free universal preschool was beginning to ramp up for the 2020 election, led in part by the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter. After hearing about the campaign from another writer, Kiesling logged onto the Portland DSA Slack one day, popped into the channel for universal pre-K, and was immediately greeted by Emily von W. Gilbert, a DSA member who was spearheading the initiative. She invited Kiesling to grab a coffee (these were pre-pandemic times) and asked her how she wanted to help.
Soon, Kiesling was proofreading copy for the campaign’s website, soliciting signatures from strangers in the park to get the measure on the ballot, and, on one occasion, explaining the details of the policy to skeptical mothers in the comments of a Facebook group for local moms.
“I’m not sure I changed anyone’s mind,” Kiesling said. “But I think I helped people who were already onboard understand how it would work, and I felt like that’s how I contributed.”
Universal preschool passed as a ballot measure in Multnomah County in November, winning 64 percent of the vote. Under the policy, all children ages three and four can attend preschool tuition-free, no matter how much their family earns. The measure also makes it so that preschool teachers are paid on par with kindergarten teachers, taking the annual income of a lead pre-K teacher from $31,000 to $74,000. The entire legislative package is funded by a marginal tax rate on the county’s highest earners—that is, by taxing the rich. There’s no other policy in the country quite like it.
The story of Multnomah’s success in passing universal pre-K is a story of coffee dates like von W. Gilbert and Kiesling’s. It’s a story of gathering signatures in front yards in the spring, or at Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. It’s about patience, cooperation, and compromise. And it’s about the hard work of many different women—socialist organizers, elected officials, mothers, childless women, healthcare workers, childcare workers, and everyday volunteers—who believed it was in their power to make things a little easier for their neighbors.
Von W. Gilbert had been working on the universal pre-K campaign for about two years by the time she met up with Kiesling. It started when Portland DSA—one of many DSA branches that sprang up post-2016—began a series of in-depth discussions with local unions and community organizations to get a sense of what kind of change residents wanted to see. Portlanders overwhelmingly agreed that the most pressing issue was the city’s housing crisis. At first, von W. Gilbert worried that housing was too massive and thorny an issue for the DSA alone to solve. But after a few more conversations, she realized that when people talked about what made housing unaffordable they often ended up talking about the costs of childcare.
“We were like, OK, if we’re able to intervene with that part of living costs for working families then we’ve effectively done something that allows them to stay in their housing,” von W. Gilbert told me. “Even though the initial emergency was housing we found another way to address it.”
Von W. Gilbert and her fellow DSA members began organizing a campaign they called Universal Preschool NOW!. Since they knew at the start that they wanted to tackle labor conditions for preschool workers, one of the first things they did was get involved in a union drive happening at Growing Seeds Learning Community. Olivia Pace, 24, had started her job there in 2019, right after she graduated from Portland State University. She’d been working in childcare and early childhood education for years though, and so she knew what she was getting into when she got hired. Though her hourly wages were above average for the position, Pace said Growing Seeds saw high turnover and suffered from the racial disparities typical to many preschools, which have a majority-women of color staff teaching majority-white classrooms of children.
“There’s this idea that it’s easy work,” Pace said. “And not only is it not easy work, it’s foundational and formational for children and families, and you need to be highly skilled to do it. But because people from the outside don’t see it that way … you have these conditions where preschool teachers are living paycheck to paycheck, literally taking food from the fridge at work because we don’t have food in our own homes.”
As 2020 drew closer, UP NOW! organizers focused on getting their proposal on the ballot, which required them to get 23,000 signatures from community members. Due to some legal challenges surrounding the exact language of the ballot measure, they had just four and a half weeks to do it—during a pandemic, Sahar Yarjani Muranovic, the campaign’s chief petitioner, reminded me. In the end, they collected 10,000 more than they needed.
“It was about showing people that we’re coming at it from many different angles and perspectives,” said Muranovic, who is also a DSA member as well as the vice-chair of the local school board. “It was important to help folks understand that this isn’t something that affects you only if you have a 3-year-old right now.”
At this point, the DSA-led universal preschool campaign had to reckon with a similar effort coming from the Multnomah County commissioner’s office, and vice versa. The commissioner’s initiative was called Preschool for All, and had been researched and developed almost simultaneously with the DSA’s. Rather than petition for the measure, Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson only needed to refer it to the ballot, and that’s what she and her task force were planning to do around the time UP NOW! organizers like Kiesling, von W. Gilbert, and Muranovic collected their 33,000 signatures.
The groups had known about each other for a while, but it wasn’t until they grew closer to bringing their proposal to voters that they seriously considered joining forces. They knew it would be confusing to have both measures on the ballot, and that they could increase their organizing power if they worked together.
Their proposals were similar, but they weren’t the same: Though Preschool for All sounded like a universal policy it wasn’t; its primary objective was to expand access to tuition-free preschool for low-income families by establishing a new standard for deciding which students were eligible. In other words, it was means-tested, something the DSA-led coalition was staunchly against (particularly since Portland already has a free preschool program for low-income families that has been consistently underfunded).
But over the course of several meetings, both groups came to agree on a single universal preschool policy to bring to voters, a compromise Muranovic said might not have happened without grassroots organizing.
“When things go through electoral channels or through our county, it’s understandable that they may be more risk-averse or might want to test out whether something is sustainable,” Muranovic said. “But when we gathered those 33,000 signatures it showed that our community was eager for a truly universal program.”
The program will launch in the fall of 2022, and continue to expand gradually until 2026, when it will go into full effect. It may seem far off, but it could already be transforming the way Multnomah residents are thinking about planning their families, where they can afford to live, whether they can have a second or third child.
Pace told me it’s changed the way she thinks about her work as a preschool teacher: Despite how much she loved her job, the field’s low wages and meager benefits made her see it as something temporary.
“I see it as something I can actually make part of my life long term and survive off of, now that I know that preschools will be treated the way that preschools are so often talked about being treated,” Pace said. “It’s just changed my entire idea of what’s possible.”