CASE STUDY IN VICTORY | How to get universal preschool: Tax the rich

Last month, voters in Multnomah County, Oregon, approved a ballot measure to offer free preschool to every child and a living wage to every preschool teacher. The proposal, paid for with a tax on the rich, passed by a whopping 64%. Multnomah County, population 813,000, includes Portland and its east-side suburbs and is Oregon’s most left-leaning and populous county.

Under the measure, the county will phase in tuition-free preschool for all three- and four-year-olds, taught by preschool teachers paid $38.80 an hour and assistant teachers paid $19.91 an hour. It’s funded by a 1.5% to 3.8% top marginal tax on high incomes that only the top 8% of county income earners will pay.

The measure was referred to voters by the elected Multnomah County Commission, but its most important details owe everything to an extraordinary campaign spearheaded by Portland DSA that began in early 2017 as a “tax the rich” effort. Bothered by economic inequality, DSA member John Bethencourt and others calculated how much revenue different tax structures could bring into local government. When the City of Portland announced closures of community centers amid an economic boom, DSAers packed budget hearings to oppose the cuts. Portland City Council members lamented the cuts, but lacked the nerve to adopt DSA’s proposal to tax the rich.

“We realized that going and yelling at the mayor, which is what we did at that point, wasn’t going to go anywhere,” says Portland DSA member and campaign co-coordinator Emily von W. Gilbert. “You have to think about an analysis of power, and try not to engage in the wishful thinking of advocacy, of appealing to the morals of elected officials.”

DSA organizers started thinking about taking the tax-the-rich proposal directly to voters via ballot initiative, and decided it would more likely succeed if paired with something the public wanted. Other Portland DSA members were organizing childcare workers. What about universal preschool?

“We thought it would be small enough to be winnable, big enough to be meaningful, and something people could get really excited about,” Bethencourt says.

Universal preschool is a fitting plank in the socialist policy arsenal because it’s a public solution to a demonstrated market failure. When preschool is left to the private market, parents struggle to afford tuition, teachers struggle to survive on the wages, and providers struggle to stay afloat. Universal preschool is also a socialist-feminist cause, because preschool’s low-wage workforce is overwhelmingly female, and because when families can’t afford preschool, it’s most often mothers who stay home, sacrificing earnings, education, and career.

The campaign launched in mid-2019 as the Universal Preschool NOW! Coalition (UP Now). But almost immediately, supporters discovered a formidable obstacle. An elected county commissioner was already working on a preschool expansion proposal. Unlike the program DSA members envisioned, the county’s “Preschool for All” (P4A) plan was a means-tested, school-year-only program for low-income families. It would cover just half the county’s children in 10 years, with an assistant teacher wage floor of $15 an hour, barely above the Portland-area minimum wage.

UP Now leaders were convinced P4A’s halfway-there program would be a grave mistake. Universal programs like Social Security and Medicare generate their own durable political support and become untouchable, while programs aimed at the poor limp along with miserly appropriations. Head Start is the perfect example: The 55-year-old preschool program is perpetually underfunded and serves just two in five poor children today.

But instead of antagonizing the competition, UP Now leaders met with P4A leaders and tried in good faith to get the county to make its proposal more like theirs. P4A wouldn’t budge. Von W. Gilbert, who’d left the DSA steering committee to focus solely on UP Now, thinks P4A leaders sincerely wanted preschool expansion, but didn’t believe something big could win. Having grown up in social democratic Sweden, she was free of those doubts. “I was raised with universal preschool,” she says. “Nobody can tell me it isn’t possible.”

P4A aimed for the November 2020 ballot, too, and all it needed was a majority of the county commission to refer it to voters. But the UP Now coalition decided to proceed with the more laborious signature-gathering route to the ballot. Advised by unions and left groups that had won initiative campaigns, they convened a coalition of more than 30 groups and put the teachers union president and other allies in leadership roles as chief petitioners. Though Portland DSA was the driving force from the start, the coalition was real. Core activists didn’t hide their socialist convictions, nor did they insist that allies adopt explicitly socialist messaging. To draft ballot language, they worked with one of the state’s most experienced ballot initiative attorneys.

But lawyers for the Portland Business Alliance filed several legal challenges that delayed the start of signature gathering for months. Then the pandemic hit. Even Bethencourt and von W. Gilbert, the campaign co-coordinators, doubted the campaign could gather the required 22,686 valid signatures in five weeks to meet the July 6 signature deadline.

But the effort soon gathered momentum. On social media, supporters shared links for individuals to sign and mail petitions. Volunteers canvassed parks and business districts daily and combed Portland’s massive Black Lives Matter marches nightly. Teachers set up signature tables in public spaces. Moms and kids solicited passersby from their driveways. Café owners put up signs and gathered signatures. By deadline day, more than 600 volunteers had turned in signature sheets. Amid a pandemic, a grassroots campaign had gathered 32,356 signatures—one out of every 15 registered voters in the county.

“We were over the moon,” Bethencourt recalls. “It was a total David and Goliath feeling.”

Overnight, the tone changed in talks with P4A. P4A leaders may have thought the business group’s legal challenge would finish off the rival proposal. Now they had a serious political problem: Sending two proposals to the ballot could confuse voters and lead both to fail, and the P4A proposal was unquestionably the weaker of the two. P4A and UP Now negotiated a merger, and P4A was rapidly modified to approximate UP Now. The merged measure would have a slower rollout and a lower tax rate, but it contained all the essentials: open to all kids, high wages for staff, funded by a tax on the rich.

In the end, voters approved it by nearly 2-to-1, with more than a quarter of a million votes in favor.

The New York Times called it “one of the most progressive universal preschool policies in the nation” and a national model. Victory has a way of raising expectations. As a beloved children’s book says, “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.”

“We want to inspire similar efforts everywhere,” Bethencourt says. “We think there’s a lot of potential for action at the local level.” 

Illustration by BLUE DELLIQUANTI

MORE: Watch a 10-minute video about the campaign.