By Kailey Fisicaro • The Bulletin

A high percentage of Oregon’s 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t attending preschool, according to a 2017 report offering an overview of kids’ well-being across the nation. Experts say affordability is likely the biggest cause for lack of enrollment. In Bend, limited space is an issue too.

About 57 percent of Oregon’s 3- and 4-year-olds are not attending preschool, according to the 2017 Kids Count Data Book, issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Baltimore-based, private philanthropic foundation advances research and makes grants to help federal agencies, states, counties, cities and other communities respond to issues negatively affecting children.

The data book’s information on preschool attendance was taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Oregon fared better than Idaho and Washington, where 69 percent and 60 percent of young children are not in preschool, but worse than California and the nation as a whole, where 52 percent and 53 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t in preschool. Overall, Oregon ranked 40th in education across the nation in the 2017 Kids Count Data Book, which also looked at proficiency in reading and math as well as high school graduation rates.

When children have access to high-quality preschool, they’re more likely to be prepared socially and academically later on, according to a state legislative report prepared by the Oregon Early Learning Division.

While the high percentage of kids not attending preschool is disappointing, it’s not exactly surprising, according to Donna Schnitker, Oregon Head Start Association President. Head Start is a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services early childhood education program that serves low-income families through local agencies. The Oregon Head Start Association lobbies for issues and money to increase the number of children who have access to the program.

The bottom line criteria for families to qualify for Head Start is that they earn at or below the federal poverty guideline. For a two-person household, that’s $16,240 per year.

“At 100 percent of poverty, I don’t even know how they survive, personally,” Schnitker said.

The federal poverty guidelines are so low, many families are left in a gap, Schnitker said. Families may make more than the federal guidelines, but still not nearly enough to afford to send their children to preschool, she said.

“In Oregon our minimum wage has increased, so if anybody is working that usually bumps you out of poverty,” Schnitker said. “You’d have to pay for preschool and you can’t.”

Schnitker said there’s a group of families that may suffer especially from this equation: The population between 100 and 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline. In addition to not being able to enroll their children in preschool, those families may be struggling to provide the basics, she said.

“Those families don’t have time to read to their children at night — they’re struggling to survive,” Schnitker said.

In the state’s 2015 legislative session, the Oregon Head Start Association worked with the Children’s Institute to start Preschool Promise, a program designed to expand access to preschool. The Children’s Institute is a Portland-based policy advocacy organization with the goal of strengthening early learning services from before birth through third grade.

Preschool Promise is meant to ensure families at up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline can enroll their 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool for free, Schnitker said.

“It hasn’t totally worked out the way we planned,” Schnitker said.

Preschool Promise providers can be childcare centers, community-based organizations, school districts or other facilities that meet the state’s strict guidelines, Schnitker said.

Families at up to 200 percent poverty can take advantage of the Preschool Promise, while families at up to 100 percent poverty can send their kids to Head Start or a Preschool Promise provider.

It’s a positive that families with the lowest incomes have choices, Schnitker said, but by sending their child to a Preschool Promise provider instead of Head Start, a family may be bumping a child at 200 percent poverty from attending preschool at all.

“We’ll get there, it’s just a struggle now to figure it out,” Schnitker said.

The conflict is another barrier to enrolling all of Oregon’s 3- and 4-year olds in preschool, Schnitker said. In addition to being president of the Oregon Head Start Association, Schnitker is director of early childhood programs for Harney Education Service District and director of the Frontier Early Learning Hub, which serves Grant and Harney counties.

Viewing numbers like the 57 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds missing out on preschool, Schnitker and others working in early education are reminded existing help from the state and federal government isn’t enough.

“Even at 200 percent, we’re still not going to be reaching enough of the low-income families that should have access to preschool,” Rafael Otto, senior communications and policy associate with the Children’s Institute said.

In its first year, Preschool Promise enrolled 1,300 kids.

“That’s a clear impact and a very positive impact, but it’s also a small sliver of the kids who would be eligible,” Otto said.

He, too, acknowledged the concern that families that qualify for Preschool Promise but not Head Start may be getting bumped when families with lower income choose Preschool Promise providers over Head Start programs.

“We’ve seen that, and we know that’s being raised by Head Start now,” Otto said. “Some families are choosing by location. We want to ensure families have as much choice as they can … That’s sort of a recognized tension in the system.”

In Bend, where the population continues to grow rapidly, there’s another kind of strain on preschool availability that’s not necessarily related to affordability.

It’s not uncommon for preschool waiting lists in Bend to have hundreds of names on them, according to Tammy Rundle, executive director of the nonprofit Growing Tree Children’s Center. And if a child doesn’t make it to the top of a waitlist, those 3- and 4-year-olds can also contribute to the 57 percent not in preschool.

“I have over 500 kids on my waitlist,” Rundle said.

The Bend preschool, which enrolls infants to 5-year-olds not yet in kindergarten, currently has 100 kids.

“We had a waiting list even through the recession, but this is the first year I have felt a panic about it,” Rundle said, adding she sometimes “feels terrible” even answering the phone, because it’s often another parent desperate for childcare.

“I have parents who have been on my list three years, and they’re just upset,” Rundle said. “In our center, children don’t leave.”

Once a family gets into Growing Tree Children’s Center, they’ll keep their child enrolled there until kindergarten, Rundle said. And infants born to families with children already enrolled in the center take priority over the rest of the waitlist so families can stay together, she said.

Two of the babies under the care of January Irene Neatherlin, a Bend day-care operator facing more than 100 charges related to the alleged mistreatment of children in her care, were on the Growing Tree Children’s Center’s waitlist, Rundle said.

“I know they didn’t take that spot knowing it was unsafe,” Rundle said.

Instead, she acknowledged families may turn to different kinds of day cares than are their first choice because of the high need in Bend. Her wish is that the city would build a community building for more preschool to be offered.

“We cannot afford to build another school,” Rundle said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,