Cute pupils and teacher lying on floor in library

Oregon’s early childhood education officials received a massive present just before Christmas: a three-year grant worth $26.6 million.

The funding, part of the federal government’s Preschool Development Grant, will give the state’s Early Learning Division $8.9 million annually, primarily to expand preschool and early childhood education programs for underserved communities throughout Oregon.

This comes right on the heels of the $1 billion-per-year Student Success Act business tax passed by the Oregon Legislature in the spring, of which $200 million will go toward early childhood education statewide. That money will also be distributed in 2020.

“It’s an exciting time, and this year will likely be a whirlwind,” said Brenda Comini, director of Central Oregon’s early learning coalition group, the Regional Early Learning Hub.

The $26.6 million grant is a renewal of a previous preschool-focused federal grant from 2019, in which Oregon and 45 other states received $4.2 million each. The follow-up grant was distributed more selectively: Only 20 states received funding for 2020, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Because the federal government announced the grant distribution so late in 2019, Oregon early childhood education leaders don’t have any details yet on how the grant money will be distributed, or who will get funding first, according to Melanie Mesaros from the state’s Early Learning Division.

But in its grant application to the federal government, the Early Learning Division listed goals for how it would spend the money: boosting the quality of early childhood education in Oregon, particularly for families from underserved groups; engaging more with families to find out what their specific needs are; and increasing training for early childhood education workers.

Comini said the funds are a necessary component to success.

“Plans are great, but if resources aren’t attached to them, what’s the likelihood that they’ll actually come to fruition?” she said. “This brings resources to the table.”

Comini said the grant will help the Regional Early Learning Hub reach Central Oregon families who are under-represented by the current early child education system.

“Really having parents’ voice (about) what’s working and what’s not working is going to help us go a long ways,” she said. “That could be setting up more programs that are culturally responsive. It could include how we work with our tribal partners about their needs.”

The learning hub already spoke this fall with parents and child care providers throughout Central Oregon to determine the best use of incoming Student Success Act funds.

Comini said she was also excited by the state’s plans for a new data system, funded by the grant. She said the data system would track the demographics of families who use child care and preschool programs, the level of providers’ engagement with families, the amount of training child care staff receive, and more.

Comini added that the new data set will be broken down by individual communities, rather than at the larger county or regional level. That’s a positive for specific groups like The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who wanted to see separate data on their specific community rather than being lumped in with all of Jefferson County, she said. The results from this data will help child care providers tweak their services to better fit their local communities, she said.

Although there are no specific plans for spending the grant yet, Comini said in the long run, the federal government’s investment into Oregon early education will result in more child care and preschool spots available. Those available spots will be high-quality and match the specific needs of families, she said.

Oliver Tatom, a member of the Regional Early Learning Hub’s governance council, said he was pleased that early childhood education was getting more financial investment.

However, Tatom expressed concern that $8.9 million annually wouldn’t be enough to fix Oregon’s child-care shortage. According to the U.S. census, more than 236,190 kids under the age of 5 lived in Oregon in 2018. That means, if distributed equally — which wouldn’t happen because the grant focuses on underserved populations — each kid would receive only $37.68.

“It’s kind of a drop in the bucket when you think, we’re spending about $10,000 per infant (annually) for full-time child care,” Tatom said. “Every dollar that comes in is helpful ... but it’s nowhere near meeting the need that we have in this state.”

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