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On this episode, host Rafael Otto speaks with Leslee Barnes, the director of the Preschool and Early Learning Division at Multnomah County. In that role, she is overseeing the Preschool for All initiative, a program approved by voters in November 2020 that will provide tuition-free, universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah County. The program is being funded by a personal income tax on high income earners and has received significant attention regionally and nationally as a progressive, upstream investment in children and families.
A fourth-generation Oregonian who grew up in Northeast Portland, Leslee Barnes has deep roots. She attended Irvington Elementary, Harriet Tubman Middle School and then Grant High School. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Warner Pacific University.
While Barnes would go on to build a career in early childhood education, her first job was as a nuclear chemical biological specialist for the United States Army. That was also when her first child was born, and her son was only 8 weeks old when she had to return to work.
In 1999, she founded Village Childcare LLC, a community-based organization that provides early learning and child care services in the Portland metro area. As a provider herself, she learned that child care is more than a service — it’s a business, and both parents and providers have unique needs.
Over the course of her 20-year career, she’s drawn on her experience as a provider to support other educators and entrepreneurs. Barnes’ leadership and work has also focused on racial justice and equity, including as the founding board chair of Black Child Development PDX.
Most recently, as a Spark improvement specialist for the State of Oregon, she helped early childhood programs launch a statewide program that raises the quality of child care. The program connects families to early learning and child care providers and offers coaching, professional development, and resources to providers.
As a participant in the Preschool for All Task Force process, she also shaped the initiative that residents approved in November 2020. The coalition of parents, education experts, nonprofit directors, elected officials, and business leaders met from September 2018 through July 2019. Under the leadership of Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, they created a vision for universal preschool in Multnomah County.
Since Preschool for All passed last November, the podcast begins by discussing its history and Barnes’ connection to the initiative as a whole. The conversation then moves to what was learned throughout the legislation process, and the different degrees of involvement that helped ensure its passage. Following that, Barnes comments on how this initiative will impact future generations in a multitude of ways — from the children in the classrooms, to the communities themselves, and even educators in the workforce.
Barnes then notes the overall goals of Preschool for All and what is needed to realize the scope of the initiative, including developing the workforce and access to physical teaching facilities. Next, the conversation pivots to the Build Back Better plan, its anticipated passage, and its impact on the Oregon education system. Closing out, Barnes gives us a view of the future and how universal preschool will positively affect not only the state, but the country as well.
[00:00:00] Rafael Otto: This is the Early Link Podcast. I’m Rafael Otto. Thank you for listening. You can always catch us on 99.1 FM in the Portland Metro on Sundays at 4:30 PM, or tune in at your convenience, wherever you find your podcasts, including iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon Music. I’m speaking with Leslee Barnes today, the director of the Preschool and Early Learning Division at Multnomah County.
In that role, she is overseeing the Preschool for All Initiative, a program approved by voters in November of 2020. That will provide tuition free, universal preschool for three- and four- year-olds in Multnomah County. The program is being funded by a personal income tax on high income earners, and has received significant attention regionally and nationally as a progressive upstream investment in children and families.
Leslee, it’s great to have you here today.
[00:00:49] Leslee Barnes: Thanks for having me here this morning. I’m glad to be with you today.
[00:00:52] Rafael Otto: I know Preschool for All passed last November, you took on the leadership role for the county in April of this year. Talk about how you came to be connected to the effort to pass preschool for all. Let’s start there.
[00:01:06] Leslee Barnes: Sure. You know, my work in early learning spans almost 25 years and I was connected to the effort through my work at the CC & R’s. I was supporting family child care providers specifically around what was called Quality Rating and Improvement at the time. And I’ve done similar work in the community. And from the perspective of supporting providers, working at my own child care facility, working at other national chains and just a lot of the advocacy work I’d done on behalf of providers, they reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you like to be a part of one of our work groups to study, like, what are the things that we really need to think about when we’re thinking about high quality early learning for young children in Multnomah County?” So of course, you know, I raised my hand and jumped right in because it’s something that’s been lacking for a long time. And over the span of my career, I’ve really seen how our early learning system has really not supported families or providers.
So I knew I was the perfect person really to be there. Because I’ve got a lot of perspective on that -from a family- as a parent as well. So I brought all that to the table doing that work.
[00:02:11] Rafael Otto: Talk a little bit about the passage of Preschool For All. There was such a sort of ground swell of effort that went into the passage. Lots of parent and family engagement and voice as part of that process. Talk about what that was like.
[00:02:24] Leslee Barnes: I think that’s really groundbreaking, because a lot of times we see systems come in place and they don’t really ask the consumer, what do you really need? And what does this really look like? So to have families there to have the support of community, folks like myself, all the people that really work in the space from schools to private sector childcare, public sector, you know. All those partners had started to be at the table and really think about all the parts. And I feel like we have been siloed for a long time, and it gave us the opportunity to be in the room at the same time; to have a champion at the county in commissioner Vega Pederson. It really was this magical moment where we said, “You know, well, let’s do this right. And let’s not compromise. And let’s really think about equity at the heart of this.” I think that was also very unique in our efforts in really designing this to be successful.