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Virginia misses preschool funding opportunity

By Robert Pianta and Nicole Dooley

This month, we learned that Virginia decided not to apply for the latest round of the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants. A successful application would have meant up to $45 million to fund more effective early-education programs for Virginia’s youngest citizens.

Virginia’s decision to not take advantage of a federal investment in the human capital of its young, mostly poor citizens, is a strikingly stark statement of our priorities.

Effective preschool is the best K-12 education reform that exists, particularly for poor children. In Utah, social investment bonds recently attracted investments from hard-nosed capitalists at Goldman-Sachs, who saw the credible evidence that effective preschool returns savings in special education costs and grade retention, to say nothing of the benefits for children and families.

Unlike other states, several of which Virginia competes with for economic development in our region (Maryland, North Carolina), Virginia refused to even apply for the chance to improve its early education safety net.

To be clear, the Virginia Preschool Initiative already provides preschool to more than 16,000 vulnerable 4-year-olds, funded by the state with a local match.

But after a half-decade of declining revenue, many localities are finding it hard to come up with local funds or classroom space to serve a growing number of eligible children.

Last year, almost 7,000 eligible 4-year-olds were not served through the commonwealth’s preschool program, and more than half of all Virginia’s 3- and 4-year-olds did not participate in any preschool program.

Nationally, states are expanding their publicly funded preschool programs precisely because they are now seeing the benefits of investments made a decade ago.

If you doubt the VPI program is effective, check out the evaluations by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which found positive effects on literacy and social development.

The administration’s reasons for not applying just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

– The time frame for the application was too tight.

The Race to the Top grant announcement was April 16; the application was available Aug. 28 and due Oct. 16. States had four months to begin planning and almost two months to complete the paperwork. Six months of work for a shot at $45 million seems a wise use of time.

– Virginia could be stuck with costs beyond the four-year program.

The federal challenge does not require states to take on long-term obligations. Rather, the funds could cover one-time costs of program expansion and development of infrastructure. Moreover, the General Assembly allocates state funding for 100 percent of the 4-year-olds who qualify for preschool. If localities don’t fill their slots, that money returns to the general fund.

– The grant was intended for states that had a jump on Virginia.

It’s true that many states are ahead of Virginia in providing effective preschool to its most vulnerable young children – programs that are right now showing return on investment at scale. That is precisely why the preschool grants were a great opportunity for the commonwealth to catch up – to capitalize on its investment in quality rating systems, to raise the rigor of professional development for teachers, to improve curriculum and assessments, to link preschool data systems to those in K-12, and to enroll more eligible children.

– The grant would commit the next governor to a major initiative.

Far from constraining the next administration, a federal grant would provide the next governor with significant federal funds to expand and improve a system already proven to help Virginia’s children – and supported by both gubernatorial candidates. Starting the new governor off with a grant of up to $45 million and a solid plan for improving our system would be a boon for Virginia.

Recently, JustChildren represented a mother trying to enroll her VPI-eligible 4-year-old in preschool. Having lost her job, she could not afford a private program. But this child sits at home waiting for a slot to open – the family lives in a county unable to serve all of its preschool-eligible 4-year-olds.

Virginia’s failure to use all available resources to expand access to affordable, effective preschool leaves this youngster and many others shut out of one of the most beneficial education programs that exists.

So, absent an infusion of tens of millions of federal dollars, what’s the commonwealth’s plan for preschool?

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Robert C. Pianta is dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Nicole Dooley is an attorney with the JustChildren program in the Petersburg office of the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center. 

This column appeared in the Virginian-Pilot and is reprinted here with permission of Robert Pianta.