The Early Link – Preschool for All Ensures High-Quality Early Learning for Children in Multnomah County

Join us Sundays at 4:30pm for new episodes of The Early Link Podcast. Listen live at 99.1 FM in the heart of Portland – or online anywhere at PRP.fm

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 childcare organization that provides early learning and childcare services in the Portland metro area. As a childcare provider herself, she learned that childcare 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 childcare 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, they begin by discussing its history and Leslee’s 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, Leslee 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.

Leslee 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, they pivot the conversation to the Build Back Better plan, its anticipated passage, and its impact on the Oregon education system. Closing out, Leslee gives us a view of the future and how universal preschool will positively affect not only the state, but the country as well.


Additional Resources:

Multnomah County Preschool for All: Pathway to Success

Preschool for All Implementation Plan

Preschool for All Reports and Key Documents

Early Learning Multnomah (ELM)



Rafael Otto, Director of Communications, Children’s Institute

~ Thanks to Children’s Institute, working to ensure that every child in Oregon has the best start in life

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