Established in 2011, Oregon’s 40-40-20 goal commits the state to advancing policies that will result in 40% of Oregonians finishing college, another 40% receiving an Associate’s Degree or occupational certification, and the final 20% at the very least completing high school or earning a GED. Based on where Oregon was when this effort was initiated, it will take considerable effort to reach the goal. For example, the most recent data for 25- to 34-year-olds shows that 80% of those who typically do not earn either an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree would have to do so for the state to achieve the 40-40-20 goal.
Making this goal even harder to achieve, Oregon is in the bottom third of states in terms of preschool participation. Preschool participation has been shown to boost cognitive development, increase rates of high school completion and college attendance, and even increase lifetime earnings by as much as 19%. In all, investments in preschool yield long-term social benefits, with one Nobel Laureate estimating that each dollar invested creates up to $8.60 worth of benefits in the form of higher tax revenue on increased earnings as well as decreased spending on programs like juvenile justice.
Oregon has made a limited effort to expand preschool access to children through Oregon Head Start. The program, however, is aimed only at children living at or below poverty and serves only 7,290 three- and four-year-olds. Although our poorest children certainly benefit from preschool, other low-income children would also benefit from increased access. Nor are these poorest children the only ones who struggle to afford preschool — only 30% of children living below 200% of the poverty level are enrolled in preschool in Oregon, compared to nearly 50% of all other children.
HB 3380, currently in the Ways and Means Education Subcommittee, recognizes the importance of expanding access to preschool for more children. The bill adds important new space for children to receive critical early education. Rather than limiting the program to public-only providers, the bill would also invest state dollars in mixed-delivery. In other words, it would open up preschool slots to children at or below 200% of the poverty level in a broad array of preschool providers that meet quality standards. By expanding the number and types of providers that are able to participate, the program would expand publicly-funded preschool to 1,500 more 3- and 4-year-olds, an increase of 20%.
Although HB 3380 is only one step towards guaranteeing universal access to the benefits of preschool, it is a critical first step. It is also one of the smartest, most cost-effective steps the state can take to ensure that our children reach their full potential and that Oregon reaches its 40-40-20 goal. By investing in preschool we are also investing in our future workforce. Well-prepared workers and innovative job creators create prosperity for the state as a whole. With $8.60 in benefits for every $1 spent, expanding preschool access is a no-brainer. The only question is, do we have the foresight necessary to make the investment?