Oregon Department of Education pays out tens of millions for severely under-enrolled Preschool Promise program

The Oregon Department of Education spent $90 million over the last two years in preschool grants even while the program was vastly under-enrolled, according to a report by Fox News.

The state’s Preschool Promise program, launched in 2016, provides publicly funded preschool to families at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. The program awards student “slots” to childcare facilities worth about $14,000 each to the facilities.

In one of the most egregious examples, Village Childcare Enterprises received over $600,000 to serve 33 preschoolers from low-income families in 2020-2021, and 20 preschoolers in 2021-2022. However, during that time, the center reported fewer than 10 students enrolled in the program.

This example is not an anomaly. In fact, many facilities have received the grants only to sit empty or with only a fraction of their slots being filled.

In another example, All Families Welcome was awarded 18 slots for Preschool Promise students in both 2020-21, while it had no students enrolled. In 2021-22, just one student was enrolled. Regardless, the facility was paid nearly $550,000 for the two years combined.

Fox News also reports Education Explorers was awarded 12 spots in 2020-21, and 10 spots in 2021-22, but had no more than two students enrolled. Education Explorers was paid $224,000 for that time period. 

The issue, it seems, is the funding for the Preschool Promise program is directly tied to fixed costs such as staffing, utilities and facilities because it requires that programs “be ready to serve eligible families as soon as they are referred, which means programs must be prepared at all times to serve the full number of funded slots,” a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Education told Fox News. 

“In other words, programs cannot delay serving referred children while they hire more staff or move to bigger facilities; the lion’s share of the funding helps them remain prepared to accept referred children immediately,” the spokesperson said.  

Delorie Finch, owner of The Finch Academy, blamed the Oregon Department of Education’s Early Learning Division, which administers Preschool Promise, for requiring her to keep slots open for students that the state never sends her way.  

Finch said her center is licensed for 40 students, and is ready to accept that many. However, 36 of those slots are reserved for Preschool Promise students – which means, Finch told Fox News, she has been forced to turn away paying customers to keep the slots open for the Preschool Promise students that “never come.”  

“The fact that we don’t have these children to service is offending to me; it’s offending to my staff,” she said. “This might be the week that they send two or three kids over, but then they never show up.” 

The Oregon Department of Education’s website states grantees must “participate in the regional Early Learning Hub coordinated enrollment process,” but “only enroll families selected through the local Coordinated Enrollment Process administered by Early Learning Hubs.” 

All these procedures are being reviewed due to the lower-than-expected enrollment numbers, according to a state DOE spokesperson. 

“The Early Learning Division is examining protocols to review enrollment and direct programs to reduce operations until enrollment increases,” the spokesperson told Fox News. “This protocol was not in place in ’21-23 as we tried to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on families and the slow return to childcare due to safety concerns, but it is in discussion for future implementation. Currently, under-enrolled programs are required to reach 75% of enrollment by mid-program year.”