Charlottesville and Albemarle County will be able to place 25 additional 4-year-olds in preschool programs this month thanks to $180,000 in grants from the Virginia Preschool Initiative.
The children will be placed either in a program run by the Jefferson Area Board for Aging or by Foundations Childhood Development Center, said Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way – Thomas Jefferson Area, and chairwoman of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force.
About $100,000 from the grant is earmarked for Albemarle County, and $80,000 will go to the city. To get the funds, each school will sign a memorandum of understanding with the localities setting forth standards of quality.
Both programs are private but are receiving public dollars in an effort to expand preschool opportunities to needy area 4-year-olds.
The early education task force has previously estimated that there are between 250 and 500 at-risk 3- and 4-year-old children in Charlottesville and Albemarle who do not have access pre-K programs.
While the task force’s main objective is to whittle that number down, Viccellio said, placements need to meet state quality standards.
“We don’t want to place kids wherever there is an open seat,” she said. “We want to place kids so that everyone is committed to the same level of quality.”
Meeting quality standards can be a tall task for private providers, said Ann McAndrew, Albemarle County Bright Stars coordinator. Standards are tied, at least in part, to the level of education of those teaching the preschoolers.
Getting class credits is a challenge for people in a business with long hours and low pay, McAndrew said.
“One of the ongoing problems in early childhood is that pay for professionals is really low, and what comes with that is really high mobility of workers,” she said.
The Bright Stars program, which has operated in Albemarle County since 1995, is funded by the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Because it is state-funded, Bright Stars is able to hire licensed teachers and pay them in line with what grade school teachers make, McAndrew said.
The county runs 11 Bright Stars classrooms in eight elementary schools, serving nearly 200 students. The program expanded by one classroom and 28 students last year.
Some of those students are funded by federal Title I dollars and funds from the Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Head Start program.
Even when quality standards are met, space limitations and logistics often get in the way, said Jim Kyner, pre-K coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools.
“We don’t have enough seats, space-wise,” Kyner said. “The other [limitation] is that sometimes what we have doesn’t quite match … We might have seats, but they’re across town and that is inconvenient for the parents.”
As Viccellio and the local task force push to expand the scope and accessibility of pre-K programs locally, efforts by the General Assembly to expand programs for 4-year-olds statewide are meeting mixed results.
A bill sponsored by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, that would have mandated public school systems statewide provide universal preschool beginning in Fiscal Year 2021 died in committee earlier this month. A fiscal impact statement accompanying the bill estimated its cost at between $500 million and $977 million.
The enormous estimated cost is the heart of the issue, Edwards said.
“A huge part of [the bill’s failure] is money. I don’t hear a lot of [opponents] who say this is a bad idea,” Edwards said. “We have just come out of a recession, and people say, ‘look at all these other needs.’ But I think we need to prioritize this over just about everything else.”
General Assembly members who voted to pass on the bill were unavailable for comment.
Despite the upfront cost, Edwards argued, quality preschools have enormous long-term benefits.
“What we have learned is that what affects an adult is how they learn early on. So much of the values they get, how they see the world, it comes early in life,” he said. “If you look at the prison system, so many of the inmates are at risk because they grew up in a bad environment.”
A 2005 study by the Rand Corporation estimated that investments in early childhood education produce returns of between $1.80 and $17.07 per dollar spent.
The returns were calculated by estimating the earning potential of participants based on higher education levels, their ability to contribute more in taxes and the reduced likelihood that they would spend time in prison.
Primarily because of the astronomical cost of a fully-public program, the early education task force is focusing its efforts on public-private partnerships.
“That is why the funding in [the grant] is for the mixed-delivery model, thinking that that is going to be the best way to move forward,” Viccellio said.
Though Edwards’ bill failed, a separate House bill introduced by Del. Tag Greason, R-Loudoun, could provide extra state grant funding to expand public-private preschools.
As written, the bill would allocate $1.5 million in each year of the 2016-2018 state budget, but Greason has introduced a budget amendment that would raise that figure to $3 million.
The bill passed the House of Delegates on an 86-13 vote this week. It will now be considered by the Senate.
Greason did not return a request for comment.
Sustainable funding is still a missing piece locally. To solve the funding riddle, the task force plans to spend a $67,000 grant from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation on a fiscal plan, Viccellio said.
“That is a really essential part of this in the long term,” she said. “It will allow us to think beyond these short-term grant opportunities.”