Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive directive on Wednesday that could expand early education opportunities for 3 and 4-year-olds in low-income families. The directive establishes a team that would look at ways for the state to provide preschool programming for all low-income families by 2025.
Virginia currently has multiple early education programs geared towards low-income families including Headstart, which is a national program and serves over 14,300 children in Virginia. The state also runs a preschool initiative.
But more than 7,400 low-income children in the state of Virginia could not attend any early education provider in the state because of lacking funding and limited space, according to the Common Wealth Institute, a local think tank.
“Pre-K is really a great equalizer,” says Adam Ebbin, a Democratic state senator on the school readiness committee. “If children don’t come to school knowing the letters of the alphabet, shapes, colors and numbers, they are not on the same level of their peers and more likely to fall behind.”
Ebbin says his team is currently involved in a study that will measure which early education government programs show the best results for students in places such as Alexandria and Fairfax. He says the study is ongoing and does not have a due date yet, but they hope to use that information to inform their work.
The team the governor is creating is supposed to draft recommendations and plans on how to expand pre-K offerings by the end of September.
Constituents are already responding to the executive directive. Early childhood advocates say they are excited, but believe more can be done.
“From what I can see, it appears that most of the funding or at least the thoughts that are going into this executive directive really is focused on three and four-year-olds,” says Dionne Dobbins, the senior director of research at Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood services.
“We would just want to encourage that this work really considers the role of infants and toddlers and let’s not forget the babies in this equation,” Dobbins says.
Nationwide, for the 2017-18 school year, there were 1.58 million kids enrolled in state-funded preschool in 44 states and D.C., according to the “State of Preschool 2018” report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
About a third of U.S. four-year-olds are in a public preschool program, while only 5.7% of three-year-olds are.
In the Washington region, D.C. has the highest enrollment numbers at 73% for three- year olds and 85% for four-year-olds. Maryland has 5% of three-year-olds and 38% of four-year-olds in preschool. Maryland officials are also promising to expand preschool options.
Virginia comes in behind both states with no three-year-olds enrolled and 18% of four-year-olds in a program. In the state, only 9% of children are in publicly funded preschools. In D.C., 80% of students are in publicly funded programs.
On a national and local level, Democrats have made early childcare and education a voting issue, promising expanded access and funding. But in many proposed plans, it’s not clear where the money will come from.