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June 5, 2014

Playing With Our Future

School divisions throughout the commonwealth may have to cut the number of preschool opportunities they offer this fall, meaning children could lose a crucial year of early learning that would help set them up for success. But lawmakers can prevent this by taking steps to strengthen Virginia’s preschool program for at-risk kids when they finally come together to resolve the budget.

The Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) funds quality early education for four-year-olds from disadvantaged families who are at risk of falling behind their peers academically. Students who participate in VPI enter kindergarten and first grade better prepared than students from similar backgrounds who didn’t attend preschool, recent research from University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education shows.

Three key changes to the governor’s initial budget would help strengthen VPI. These changes are included in the Senate’s budget, but not yet in the House’s. Legislators should:

  • Ensure that children don’t miss their chance to participate in VPI next year. Access to VPI for 892 children in 32 communities across the state is threatened because two years ago the legislature changed the formula for counting the number of children eligible for the program in each school division. After the change, some divisions would have lost currently occupied preschool seats, but legislators agreed to hold those localities harmless. Lawmakers should extend that provision, which is set to expire, so that school divisions won’t have to cut the number of VPI preschoolers they serve.
  • Invest more in this successful program. The per-pupil funding amount in the VPI formula sets a ceiling on the cost the state shares with localities. It’s been stagnant since 2008, even as classroom costs have increased. The Senate budget provides a small but long-overdue funding increase in 2015-16 by adding $98 to the per-pupil cost, bringing it to $6,098. That’s still about $600 below what it would be if annual inflation adjustments had been made in recent years. And it doesn’t come close to the level needed to meet guidelines for what it takes to fund quality early education set by the National Institute for Early Education Research. By those standards, Virginia should be investing around $9,500 per child.                          
  • Use accurate head counts to figure out how many children in our communities are in need of VPI. The state allocates VPI slots by subtracting enrollment in Head Start early education, which is federally funded, from the overall estimate of at-risk four-year-olds in a community. Annually updating the data would account for recent federal cuts to Head Start, which left as many as 1,000 children in Virginia without access to a quality early learning program.

Adopting these measures to strengthen VPI would help ensure brighter futures for more children while laying the groundwork for our state’s future economic vitality. After all, today’s schoolchildren are tomorrow’s scientists and engineers.

Access to preschool – and the crucial early edge it can provide – hangs in the balance for nearly 900 of the Commonwealth’s children. It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t let them miss.

–Hope Richardson, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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