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Child care took center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the focus hasn’t lasted in Oregon

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Rob Manning
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OPB
File photo of preschooler.

The Oregon governor candidates have been largely mum on the future of the state's child care.

There was a moment during the COVID-19 pandemic when it became clear how essential childcare is to a thriving economy.

This truth — long known by working parents — came only after a deadly global pandemic, women dropping out of the workforce en masse and parents sequestered at home with their children.

Suddenly, politicians were paying attention and even echoing concerns advocates have raised for years: child care workers are underpaid, yet it remains crushingly expensive for parents.

The government invested billions of dollars in helping parents during the pandemic, but that money is set to expire soon. And there was talk at the federal level of including paid family leave, free preschool and expanded public child care in the Inflation Reduction Act, but the final package was stripped of all three.

In Oregon, although work to build child care capacity is underway, the issue has received relatively little attention from the three women — Republican Christine Drazan, Democrat Tina Kotek and Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated candidate — running to be the state’s next top executive.

(Kotek is traveling to Medford this week to visit a preschool and to talk about expanding access to child care.)

Kali Thorne Ladd, the chief executive officer of the Portland-based Children’s Institute, an advocacy group focused on public policies affecting children, said she’s been dismayed by how little the three candidates for governor have focused on the earliest years of a child’s life.

“The next governor has the potential to change the trajectory for early learning in Oregon and by doing so, they have the power to change the trajectory of the state,” Thorne Ladd said. “The success or failure of our children will determine the success or failure of Oregon.”

The next woman to be elected governor will also be charged with overseeing a new state agency: the Department of Early Learning and Care, tasked with focusing on children from birth through the age of 5 starting in July of 2023.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, one of the few working parents in the Legislature with small children, helped spearhead an effort to funnel more money into early childhood care and create the dedicated agency during the 2022 legislative session. Power, who is also a lawyer and a mom to a toddler and a first grader, said she “deeply, deeply” understands that child care is essential infrastructure.

Oregon remains one of the more expensive states in the country for infant care. And it’s also difficult to secure care in Oregon; every county in Oregon, for example, is considered a “child-care desert,” for children 2 and younger, meaning there are not enough affordable and accessible spots for the youngest children who need them.

And since neither the state nor the federal government guarantee paid family leave for workers, many parents are stuck trying to patch together care from friends and family or must quit their jobs to care for their kids.

Although the issue of child care hasn’t taken center stage with the three gubernatorial candidates, OPB asked each candidate two specific questions on the issue to gain a better understanding of their thinking. Their answers have not been edited.

PAID FAMILY LEAVE

In 2019, Oregon lawmakers passed House Bill 2005, establishing a paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program.

The program would allow employees at companies with more than 25 workers to take up to 12 weeks off to care for a new child, seek medical treatment, address domestic violence issues or deal with illness. While on leave, the program would pay a percentage of the person’s wages. The amount would depend on how much the employee earns. The person’s job would also be protected if they have been with the company for more than 90 days.

The program has gotten off to a rocky start, delayed by the pandemic and myriad other problems, such as turnover and unhappy employees, highlighted in an investigation by the Oregonian.

Employers and employees are scheduled, however, to start paying into the program beginning January 1, 2023, and the program is scheduled to start paying benefits in September 2023.

Here is what we asked the candidates:

Paid family leave is meant to start in Oregon in 2023, but there are many families it won’t cover. What is your stance on state-subsidized leave that would cover people working for very small companies — fewer than 25 employees — or the self-employed?

Christine Drazan, the Republican candidate for governor, wrote:

I crossed party lines to support paid family leave in part because constituents supported provisions which helped victims of domestic violence and because responsibility was shared between employees and employers while not burdening our smallest small businesses with an unaffordable program. In the intervening years businesses across the state have faced workforce shortages which have remained unabated. I have great concern that this program as structured will only exacerbate those challenges. We must provide a balanced program which allows businesses to remain open while providing employees with support when they need it most. I do not support expanding the existing program but believe that the existing program warrants review.

Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate for governor, wrote:

All Oregon families should have access to paid family leave so they can care for a newborn, themselves, or a loved one. As House Speaker, I led the way to pass one of the nation’s strongest paid family leave programs. As part of the negotiations to pass the bill, Republicans and the business community pushed for an exemption from the employer contribution for companies with 25 or fewer employees. A broad bipartisan coalition ended up supporting that compromise. As Governor, I will focus first on implementing the current law successfully and would then support expanding it.

Betsy Johnson, the unaffiliated candidate for governor, wrote:

Paid family leave is a great policy that politicians should have left to businesses to implement or not based on their market and employee situation. As it is, politicians in Salem have passed heavy handed mandates that will disparately impact small and growing businesses and ironically keep them from being able to maintain their workforces.

This law desperately needs what the initial proposal needed, which is to work closely with business owners by size and sector to figure out how we get around the absurd one-size-fits-all mandate. I deeply believe our government needs to change its perspective from doing things to business to working with business. The idea that its employers are wrong to try to maintain and grow their businesses does real damage to both jobs and job creators.

UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL

OPB also asked all the candidates about universal preschool. In 2020, voters in Multnomah County approved a measure that will offer free preschool to all children ages 3 and 4 by 2030. The program — which will pay lead preschool teachers in line with kindergarten teachers and provide subsidies for programs offering infant and toddler care — was expected to start this month, but understaffing in the Early Learning Division has caused delays. A shortage of child care workers and a backlog of background checks is also causing issues with the rollout.

Here is what we asked the candidates:

Voters in Multnomah County approved a universal preschool measure during the pandemic. Do you feel that the private-public partnership model they plan to use could be a fit for families statewide? As governor, would you support legislation to expand free preschool access in the state?

Christine Drazan, the Republican candidate for governor, wrote:

No. During this time of extraordinary tax burden, the last thing we need to do is grow government and expand it.

Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate for governor, wrote:

I am a strong supporter of making sure every Oregon child can have access to high-quality, affordable early childhood education. That’s why I made sure the Student Success Act included expanded investments in early childhood programs so more children will be ready for school when they enter kindergarten. Oregon’s path to achieving this big goal will require significant public-private partnership. As Governor, my initial priorities will be on meeting the growing need for suitable physical space for safe child care, expanding our child care workforce by providing capacity-building grants to communities, and expanding the coverage of Oregon’s Employment Related Daycare Program (ERDC) to meet the needs of more families.

Betsy Johnson, the unaffiliated candidate for governor, wrote:

I’m suspicious of the assumptions behind the question. Of course I would be in favor of expanding preschool access and I understand affordability is everything to giving children a head start, but Multnomah County’s program is a disaster from start to finish. It is only a model for failure. It establishes way too high of a tax rate, giving Multnomah County the dubious honor of having the highest individual tax rates of any county in the country and fails to connect early education to the school system as a whole. There is no curriculum, there is no plan, there are no measurables. It is exactly what I would not do.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake is a political reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.