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For Once, Compromise and Consensus Rule

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Conservatives have always been skeptical about building massive government-run preschool programs. They frequently cite the cost, or the fact that some studies show the effects of pre-k programs fade or disappear over time.

Liberals, meanwhile, are customarily critical of anything that smacks of “school choice,” usually arguing that the answer to poorly educated children is to spend more money, opposing any programs outside of those tightly run by government entities.

Both expanded pre-school and expanded education choice came together last week in a bill signed by Governor Ralph Northam. And the result was: Children won.

Northam quietly signed legislation introduced by State Senator Bill Stanley expanding the existing Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) Program to preschoolers. The bill passed with bipartisan support (10 Democrats voted aye, even as four Republicans voted No).

Currently, the EISTC offers donors to approved scholarship foundations a state tax credit and the foundations, in turn, provide scholarships to at-risk K-12 public school students seeking to attend a private school that better fits their educational needs. The revenue lost to the state through the tax credit is more than compensated by the savings from no longer paying for the child’s public education.

Today, the EISTC provides more than $13 million in scholarships to 4,300 K-12 students. Some schools, like St. Joseph’s in Petersburg, survive solely because of the tax credit. Others, like the soon-to-open Cristo Rey High School (see adjoining story) opened here precisely because the EISTC exists. All the at-risk students are receiving additional options they wouldn’t otherwise have.

But, until now, preschoolers weren’t part of the equation … and they desperately needed to be.

Created during the George Allen Administration more than 24 years ago, the Virginia Preschool Initiative currently serves more than 17,000 at-risk four-year-olds not served by Head Start or other public preschool programs. Under it, the state and localities share financial responsibility.

But thousands of children are left without access to the program, for three primary reasons: Some localities are unable (or choose not to) meet the required local match. Others have insufficient space in their public schools. And, especially in rural areas, there are sometimes too few eligible students spread too thinly to make a program cost-effective.

Stanley’s expansion law allows scholarship foundations offering scholarships to K-12 students to offer similar scholarships to at-risk four-year-olds who are unable to get into VPI or Head Start. By expanding the pool of providers to include the private sector, more unserved children will receive services that have proven valuable.

Indeed, studies of VPI consistently show that children attending the program are more likely to meet early literacy benchmarks, score higher on the third grade Standard of Learning assessments, and more likely to be promoted on-time to eighth grade.

Which is why the new law also requires private providers to mirror the Virginia Preschool Initiative by requiring a high quality curriculum, at least one teacher for every 10 students, at least a half-day program, and professional development of credentialed teachers in the classroom.

The legislation offered consensus and compromise. For once, both sides did not get bogged down in a dispute that lost sight of the main objective. And now that it’s law, the objective of expanding opportunities for at-risk children who do not receive these important services can be met.

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