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State and Local Wins Illustrate National Demand for Early Learning Investments

Children race outside during a "mask break" from class in Stamford, Connecticut, October 2020.

This column contains corrections.

As the country turns to a new administration and Congress in 2021, policymakers must prioritize investments in early learning, taking signals from communities that see this as a major issue. In November, voters across the country passed ballot initiatives, demonstrating a groundswell of support for public investment in early care and education. Communities displayed a resounding recognition of early childhood programs’ critical role in strengthening child development and enabling parents to work—from comprehensive community services and child care to universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children. Moreover, the stark realities of the ongoing pandemic merely underscore the importance of investing in child care and early learning to support working families and the economy.

Quality early learning systems—with robust opportunities for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to learn from educators who earn a living wage—bolster economic development and can even address racial, gender, and economic inequality. Voters overwhelmingly support congressional action on child care and early education. The following state and local ballot wins underscore the widespread popularity for broad federal investment in early learning that meets community needs.

Ballot initiatives

Ballot initiatives allow citizens to introduce and vote directly on state or local legislation. While rules regarding ballot initiatives vary by state (only 24 states allow ballot initiatives), the fundamental requirement that an issue must garner enough support before consideration for approval to appear on a ballot provides a clear gauge of voter enthusiasm for a particular policy issue.

New investments

These five ballot initiatives create new sources of state and local public funding that will expand access to early learning and child care for more children and families across the country.*

Multnomah County, Oregon

Sixty-four percent of voters in Multnomah County—which comprises much of greater Portland—elected to enact Ballot Measure 26-214, a detailed plan for universal preschool. Two groups combined forces in a community-led, multiyear Preschool for All campaign. The Parent Accountability Council (PAC)—a group of 40 parents of color who were part of the original Preschool for All Task Force—led efforts to shape the comprehensive preschool plan. And Universal Preschool NOW! (UPNOW!), a coalition of community organizers, led a parallel effort that further increased community support for public investment in preschool.** Petra Hernandez, a mother of two daughters, joined PAC’s efforts to ensure that parent voices were centered. According to Hernandez, “The plan is good because it’s not just [shaped by] professionals; it listens to families and the community.”

The approved ballot measure will generate about $202 million a year through a progressive income tax on individual income above $125,000 and household income above $200,000. The county will use these funds to expand access to preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children in a mixed-delivery system including public schools, new and existing child care centers, and home-based child care providers.

Notably, the county has a plan to ensure that providers have access to higher education and compensation that ensures a living wage. Lead teachers will earn a wage comparable to that of kindergarten teachers; teaching assistants will earn a minimum of $18 an hour with cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) based on union-negotiated COLA rates; and a compensation matrix will adjust wages depending on additional credentials. The county expects to add 12,000 preschool spots and hire 2,300 new teachers. This initiative also prohibits expulsion from preschool, provides teachers with training so they can address behaviors they perceive as challenging without using expulsions, and outlines intentional steps to protect the limited supply of infant and toddler program slots.

St. Louis, Missouri

“The village has spoken,” said Gloria Nolan, a St. Louis community and parent organizer, about the city’s recent 12-point-margin victory on Proposition R, a ballot initiative that will establish the first local public funding in St. Louis explicitly for early childhood services. WEPOWER—a group that activates community power to build equitable economic, health, education, and justice systems—led a multiyear effort to study and reimagine a better local early childhood system in St. Louis. The group’s work was largely informed by the experiences of affected providers and families, a 2014 report examining racial health disparities in St. Louis, and priorities set forth by the Ferguson Commission following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by a white police officer in 2014. Nolan moved back to the city following Brown’s death. “His murder and [the] events that followed were very impactful,” she said. “I felt this urge to come back and be a part of the change I wanted to see.”

Nolan, along with a multiracial coalition of parents and early educators, created the Tomorrow Builder’s Playbook, a plan to transform early childhood education in St. Louis city and county using local public funding as a key pillar. Proposition R will do just that, generating a sustainable $2.3 million annually by increasing property taxes 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The funds will be equitably allocated to increase access to quality early childhood programs and services for children, prioritizing families with low incomes.

Colorado

Sixty-eight percent of Colorado voters approved Proposition EE, a statewide ballot measure that will increase sales taxes on tobacco products and expand sales taxes to all nicotine products, such as electronic cigarettes and vape pens. The increased sales tax will generate an estimated $180 million annually by 2023. The state will then begin using funds to sponsor 10 hours of preschool a week, aiming for universal access across the state for children during the year prior to entering kindergarten.

More than 67 percent of Coloradans voted in favor of the ballot measure, with a wider margin of victory than the 11 other statewide measures also on the ballot. This overwhelming support for the measure suggests that families and communities want public investments in preschool programs.

Escambia and Leon counties, Florida

Two counties in Florida found creative ways to use the election to consider new revenue sources to support children and services in years to come. Voters in Escambia County (Pensacola) and Leon County (Tallahassee), Florida, elected to raise local property tax dollars to create new children’s councils, which will work to expand support services for children, including early childhood education.

Renewed investments

In addition to these five measures that provide new investments in child care and early learning, some localities, seeing firsthand the benefits of investing in early learning for their communities, voted on ballot measures to renew programs that benefit young children.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Seventy percent of Cincinnati voters passed Issue 17, renewing $15 million in annual funding for preschool. An original ballot measure passed in 2016 after organized community members and educators created Cincinnati Preschool Promise. The funds will continue expanding access to affordable high-quality preschool for nearly 5,000 3- and 4-year-old children through the Cincinnati Public Schools and Cincinnati Preschool Promise community-based providers. Votes in 2016 and 2020 demonstrate sustained voter support for public investments that expand access to preschool for more families.

San Antonio, Texas

With overwhelming support from 73 percent of voters, San Antonio’s Proposition A passed and will renew funding for Pre-K 4 SA, the city’s 2012 preschool program, through a one-eighth-cent sales tax. Pre-K 4 SA has graduated more than 12,000 4-year-old children from preschool and distributed $12 million in grants that support providers in expanding to full-day, quality programs. San Antonio provides yet another example of voters’ willingness to invest in young children.

Conclusion

Successful ballot initiatives in cities, counties, and states across the country show that great voter appetite exists for public investment in early learning investments that meet the needs of families and support the economic health of communities. While passing ballot measures that increase funding for early childhood programs can improve access to these community benefits, many localities do not have the tax base necessary to leverage the levels of funding required to meet the needs of all families and providers. Often, these same communities experience the most significant shortages of affordable child care options. Ensuring that all children, families, and communities have equitable access to early care and education will require broad federal investment—starting in 2021.

MK Falgout is a research assistant for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Laura Dallas McSorley is the director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Petra Hernandez, Gloria Nolan, and Joey Sanders, who shared their time and stories for this column.

* Correction, December 9, 2020: This column has been updated to correctly state successful local and state ballot initiatives that passed in November 2020. While the San Joaquin County ballot measure received 64.7 percent of the vote, the measure did not pass because California requires a two-thirds supermajority to pass a special tax.

** Correction, December 10, 2020: This column has been updated to correctly describe UPNOW!’s role in supporting Multnomah County’s successful ballot measure.