The latest annual report from the National Institute for Early Education Research ranks Virginia #29 in early education access for four-year-olds – a statistic comparing unfavorably to the Commonwealth’s surrounding states.
Some argue that increasing early childhood education access can come only by spending a lot more money; others dismiss early education – even for educationally at-risk children — as “baby sitting.” The truth is in between.
It’s true that too many studies claiming near-miraculous accomplishments from early childhood education looked only at relatively small “boutique” programs that would be far too expensive to replicate. But the reality is that low-income children too often get to education’s starting line of kindergarten far behind their wealthier peers. Among other indicators, by the age of three, children from low-income families will have heard 30 million fewer words than their peers in “professional” families, missing out on the formative stages of language and reading.
However, large scale studies of the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), serving educationally at-risk children, have shown that children attending VPI are more likely to meet early literacy benchmarks, score higher on the third grade Standard of Learning tests, and are more likely to be promoted on-time to eighth grade.
It’s not just “babysitting.” But it’s also not just “more money.” The state of North Carolina spends 41 percent more per child than Virginia on early education, without a major difference in access: North Carolina ranks #25; Virginia, #29.
The Virginia Preschool Initiative has more than 7,000 unfilled slots that could be used to serve eligible at-risk four-year-olds. More than 6,000 of these are in just 13 school divisions, and another 400 are in 11 divisions that do not participate in VPI at all. There are three primary reasons for this: An inability or refusal to meet the required local funding match, insufficient space, or too few eligible students spread too thinly to create critical mass in rural locations.
The question is: “How do we reduce the number of unserved at-risk students in Virginia, lower barriers to pre-k services, and provide additional data that might be useful in measuring Early Childhood outcomes in order to inform future programs?”
Few non-public providers are involved in the delivery of VPI because of a barriers identified by the Virginia Child Care Association, and this limits expansion. Among those barriers are decisions by local school systems to simply not include center-based providers; a high, expensive and arguably unnecessary requirement for licensed teachers; limited and confusing communications; and a complex funding mechanism.
The state recently issued a second round of “Mixed-Delivery Preschool Grants,” in order to expand preschool access in five jurisdictions. But the grants remain top-heavy with regulations, limited in their scope, and have an automatic sunset in two years – at which point funding will go away and localities will likely revert to the current status quo.
A far more effective method would be expansion of the Virginia Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) to include pre-k students. Currently, private donors to scholarship foundations receive a 65 percent state tax credit if it’s used to offer scholarships for K-12 students to attend a school that is a better placement for the student.
This year, the program will raise $10 million to provide 4,000 low-income K-12 students with new private educational opportunities – at no cost to the state taxpayer, since the state is now relieved of the expense of educating the students.
Opening up the EISTC program to offer scholarships equal to the state share of VPI funding would provide additional opportunities for hundreds, if not thousands of additional at-risk students. The inability or refusal of local jurisdictions to match state funding or have space available would no longer be a barrier. Parents would simply choose the qualified local provider best fitting their child’s needs.
The proposal would also provide additional data on which to base future decisions. A deficiency of current studies is the inability to differentiate between students who attend different programs or no program at all. We know what works in a public pre-k setting; we do not necessarily have the data to compare with a non-public pre-k setting. Following students who attend non-public pre-k settings through their public school career would add considerably to our knowledge about what works, and incorporating the data would inform us further about what is effective and what might be more efficient.
To be sure, the private schools should have to meet certain minimal requirements: A minimum half-day program; a curriculum aligned with Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning; a teacher-child ratio of no more than 2:20; a teacher development program ensuring early learning teachers are proficient in establishing social-emotional warmth, creating high-quality teacher-child interactions, and delivering high-quality instruction based on the standards and curricula.
Legislation introduced this year by Senator Bill Stanley (R-Moneta) would do just that. His bill, SB 1427, passed the Senate by 39-0, with one abstention, although it died in the House Finance Committee.
But his bill to expand the EISTC program would increase access for at-risk students and allow us to better measure what works and what doesn’t, and Virginians should hope he re-introduces it and continues the fight next year.