Across Multnomah County, 492 preschoolers are on waitlists for four Head Start and Oregon Pre-K providers, according to the state's Early Learning Division. It's part of what makes Oregon a "child care desert."
But the issues aren't space or money.
The issue is a lack of staff.
To highlight the shortage, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici in April toured a Neighborhood House Head Start program in Northwest Portland. The lawmaker, whose district includes portions of Southwest Portland, took a seat in a tiny chair as she read aloud to a handful of preschoolers. To her left, a child peered out from above a pillow-lined nook in the corner. To her right, a teacher worked with children at a table full of flash cards and toys on the other side of a room.
"There's lots of research that shows investing in early childhood education is such a good investment because it really gets kids off to a strong start in life," Bonamici said, touring the Neighborhood House facility. "What could be better? It reduces what we spend on our K-12 system and it's really better for the kids, better for families in their trajectory through the school system."
The toys, learning and staff-guided play time are crucial to early childhood development, but many kids in Oregon don't have access to it.
Staffing woes everywhere
The Head Start child care and early learning center Bonamici toured is one of 30 in Oregon, and one of 23 with a waitlist because there isn't enough staffing to accommodate the number of families in need. Those numbers don't include the migrant and seasonal Head Start and Alaskan Native/American Indian Head Start programs in Oregon.
Across the river, Caitlin Curtis is an early childhood educator and advocate who oversees the Head Start program at the Neighborhood House location in Southwest Portland, one of two in the area.
"We do have a waitlist for our two Head Start centers (Northwest and Southwest) and we also have a waitlist for our Head Start classroom that is located in Markham Elementary," Curtis said.
About 30 families are on waitlists for those programs.
"We are not at capacity, most of our classrooms are not fully enrolled and both of our centers have classrooms that are not even open because we are unable to staff them to ratio," Curtis said. "Our largest waitlist is for the infant and toddler classrooms, we are hoping to open a second toddler classroom to meet that need but are unable to until next school year. At our location in Markham Elementary we are looking to rent out another room for the next school year because the waitlist is so long, we want to be able to serve more families."
The pandemic highlighted the vast shortage of child care centers and resurfaced an issue that has plagued working families and women in particular, for decades. Without access to day care or preschool, mothers often are forced to stay home with young children. Even before the pandemic, the cost of child care was a deterrent for low or middle-income households.
In a recent briefing to Multnomah County commissioners, Brooke Chilton-Timmons, an analyst with the county's Early Learning Division, said Multnomah County lost 20% of its child care providers during the pandemic. There are 300 fewer providers than there were before.
"It's important to remember what a devastating impact the pandemic has had on child care providers," Chilton-Timmons said. "The pandemic made shockingly clear how unstable our child care system is."
Even before the pandemic, less than half of the children in Multnomah County had access to a regulated child care program.
The state's Head Start programs are federally funded to make child care and preschool available to families who can't afford them. But most of those programs can't accept more kids into their facilities until they have the staff in place. Pre-K programs struggle to recruit care providers and teachers into a profession that is often overlooked or devalued.
Lindsay Wills, program director at Neighborhood House's Northwest location in the Pearl District, said there can be barriers to entering the career field. Head teachers at the Head Start preschool programs need a bachelor's degree.
"I do think there needs to be different pathways," Wills said. "I don't believe college is the right pathway for every teacher. I think we can build skills with apprenticeship programs, which is something we do internally in our programs."
Wills said in her program, the best teachers have climbed the ladder from a classroom aide to assistant, to lead teacher, growing their skillsets on the job. "There's plenty of different ways to become a really qualified teacher," she added.
"It's a challenging cycle of not having enough qualified teaching staff which means we are unable to fully enroll our classrooms which leads to children and families not getting the care they need," Curtis, in Southwest Portland, said. "We have the space, we just need the staff."
While Head Start programs are federally funded, many are not, meaning only families with higher incomes can afford tuition at day care and preschool programs. Multnomah County voters tried to fix this recently, with the passage of the Preschool for All measure in 2020. The measure taxes higher income earners to create no-cost preschool for county residents.
The program just got off the ground and is now accepting applications for the next term, but space is limited to 500 slots. It's unlikely it will be able to serve all families until 2030.
Bonamici, the lawmaker, said despite Oregon's robust investments in early childhood programs, more might be needed to help working families and children.
"We need more programs like this that are free or very low cost for low income families," Bonamici said. "We don't have enough programs like this. And in many places across the region, the providers don't make a living wage."