If Governor Ralph Northam is looking for a place to build legislative consensus, here’s one place to start: Support for pre-k programs aimed at better preparing at-risk four-year-olds for kindergarten and beyond.
True, conservatives remain skeptical about building massive universal government-run pre-k programs, as should liberals: In a “universal” program, once budgets get tight, the ones shunted aside are usually those who need help the most – low income children and parents.
And while some studies have shown that the impacts of pre-k programs fade or disappear over time, a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research of the KIPP charter school program concludes that “KIPP pre-K programs have a positive impact on students’ academic and cognitive skills that persist …”
This is buttressed by studies of the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) consistently showing that children attending VPI are more likely to meet early literacy benchmarks, score higher on the third grade Standard of Learning tests, and more likely to be promoted on-time to eighth grade.
Created during the George Allen Administration more 23 years ago, the VPI program was intended to serve at-risk four-year-olds not served by Head Start or other public preschool programs. Under it, the state and localities share financial responsibility for giving these children a better start in life.
Today, VPI serves more than 17,000 children — but nearly 7,500 other children are left without access to a quality pre-k program. There are three primary reasons for this gap: Some localities are unable to meet the required match. Others have insufficient space. And, especially in rural areas, there are too few eligible students spread too thinly to make a program cost-effective.
More than 5,800 of these unserved children are in just 10 school divisions; another 400 children are in school divisions that do not participate in the program at all.
Policymakers are thus left trying to answer the question: “How do we reduce the number of unserved children in Virginia?”
Answering it includes figuring out how to lower barriers to participation. Northam and the General Assembly cannot rely on state and local funding alone. Localities either cannot or will not contribute and many simply don’t have enough facilities. And it’s unlikely that state funding will be found to cover both state and local shares.
The only solution – if we’re serious about increasing the number of students served – is greater involvement of quality private providers.
But few non-public providers are involved in the delivery of VPI because of barriers identified by the Virginia Child Care Association, among them: decisions by school systems to simply not include private providers; a high, expensive and arguably unnecessary requirement for licensed teachers; and a complex funding mechanism.
Fortunately, Delegate Steve Landes and Senator Bill Stanley have come up with at least a partial answer – and one endorsed by the Virginia School Readiness Committee, created by the General Assembly and Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2016. In response to the “urgent need” to increase access to early childhood education, the committee – composed of early childhood practitioners, policy experts and legislators — proposed expanding the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) program to pre-k children.
Currently, the EISTC is available for K-12 students only. Donors to approved scholarship foundations receive a 65 percent state tax credit, and the foundations, in turn, provide scholarships to at-risk public school students seeking to attend a private school that better fits their needs. The revenue lost to the state is more than compensated by the savings from no longer paying for the child’s public education.
The Landes and Stanley legislation would ensure only quality pre-k programs were eligible to participate in the expanded EISTC 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. Scholarships, in turn, would be capped by the amount the Commonwealth committed to spend had the child been able to attend a VPI program, so that the pre-k program would be as revenue neutral as the K-12 program.
The Stanley legislation was just unanimously approved by the Senate Finance Committee. The two bills differ largely in child eligibility: Landes’ bill matches the VPI income qualification; Stanley’s echoes the qualifications for the K-12 EISTC program. But both are means-tested to focus on at-risk children.
In the past, “conservatives” have generally been viewed as opposing pre-k expansion as too expensive; “liberals” have been viewed as opposing any programs outside of those tightly run by government entities. Those views are falling away as both pre-k effectiveness with low-income children and the limitations of government-exclusive programs become more evident.
The Landes and Stanley legislation offers consensus and compromise that would expand opportunities to at-risk children who do not receive these important services. It – and the children to be served – deserve support.
(A version of this column ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch on January 26, 2018)