Don’t Cut Crucial Preschool Learning Program
ROBERT PIANTA TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST
CHARLOTTESVILLE State government, localities, and families are facing the toughest economic times in memory. Our governor and legislators are wrestling with the challenge of making billions of dollars in cuts to education, health care, and other critical services for children and families, at the very time that the economic downturn is pushing families into greater financial distress at alarming rates. Among the critical decisions our political leaders need to make is how to direct very precious resources toward programs that are critical investments for the future.
Thankfully, both Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposed changes to the budget and the Senate Finance Committee's budget proposal stand strongly in support of one of the commonwealth's most effective programs and wise investments, the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), the public preschool program targeted to low-income 4-year-olds across Virginia. VPI was started by Gov. George Allen and has seen continued expansion supported by legislatures and governors of each party. This bipartisan support comes no doubt because state leaders understand the program makes a real difference to our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, their families, and the communities in which they live.
We all know the national results and the evidence from other states -- preschool experiences promote school readiness and investments in preschool return many times in improved shortand long-term outcomes. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Smart Beginnings Initiative released a report last summer which showed that low-income kindergartners who attended preschool in Charlottesville and Albemarle County were more likely to meet key education benchmarks than their peers who had not attended preschool.
In 2007 the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, after a comprehensive analysis of VPI, concluded that it raised literacy rates of participants through third grade (the last year available for study). A 2007 report by the Commonwealth Institute estimated that each dollar invested in VPI returns more than $7 in savings and improved educational outcomes.
I have visited preschool classrooms in Virginia and across the country and studied the impact of preschool on learning for much of my professional life. National studies confirm the success we are seeing emerge in Virginia and of which we can expect more: High quality preschool results in less grade retention, fewer special education placements, higher graduation rates, less reliance on welfare programs, and less involvement in the criminal justice system. It's no surprise, then, that the business community in Virginia and across the country strongly supports investments in preschool and other early childhood initiatives.
While McDonnell and the Senate have shown bipartisan support for staying strong on VPI, the House of Delegates has made proposals that could cause real harm to this important program.
Specifically, the House has proposed eliminating funding for VPI, lumping previous funding with funds for other programs targeting at-risk children, and cutting $50 million from the total. The remaining funds will be available to local school systems in the form of block grants that local schools can elect to spend on one or more of three specific programs, including VPI.
With no assurance that schools use the funds for VPI, preschool will go away for many poor children in Virginia. In addition to lumping and cutting, the House appears to have done away with financial incentives that have successfully encouraged wealthier school divisions to make more preschool slots available to their low-income students.
In other words, under the cover of "flexibility" the House has eliminated specific VPI support, cut the funding available to it and other programs for at-risk children, and eliminated incentives for opening more preschool classrooms.
Without a strong state preschool program, many disadvantaged children will start school behind and have difficulty catching up. At a time when the safety net is collapsing around them, all Virginians need low-income students to have this critical lifeline and become the citizens we know they can be. We should commend Gov. McDonnell and the Senate for supporting this proven and wise public investment, and urge House leaders to do the same.