Keep Momentum for Early Learning

The Roanoke Times - OpEd Piece
By Elizabeth Strother

Alongside the many millions of dollars Virginia is considering shearing off of its support of public schools is a little nick that would have an outsized impact on children's education.

The $1.5 million a year the state now puts into the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation is a small investment in a big initiative, a public/private partnership dedicated to making sure youngsters reach school ready to learn.

Its support of local and regional Smart Beginnings collaboratives around the state has helped to bring businesslike accountability to a small but growing number of child care centers, in large part by helping them implement Virginia's Star Quality Initiative.

This voluntary rating system can and should be a godsend to working parents who need day care for their children, but who have little way to judge program quality. Yet solid research shows high-quality early learning experiences, from birth to age 5, greatly enhance children's future success, in school and in life.

Day care providers who want to participate in the Star Quality Initiative are measured against state standards in four key areas, such as teacher education and training, and receive ratings on a five-star scale. The providers get support and incentives as well from their local Smart Beginnings network.

Structurally, this may seem a bit complicated, but such is the Virginia way.

Former Gov. Tim Kaine came into office four years ago promising to make voluntary preschool available to all of the state's 4-year-olds. That admirable and ambitious goal sank with the state's revenues.

The Star Quality system is a Kaine administration initiative that seeks a different route toward the same end.

The ratings attempt to extend the benefits of the Virginia Preschool Initiative into private day care settings at a time when beleaguered public school systems are being forced to consider scaling back or eliminating their programs.

The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, established under Kaine's predecessor and fellow Democrat, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, has a critical role to play in keeping the momentum going.

Over the past four years, the foundation and community Smart Beginnings collaboratives leveraged a total $5.5 million in state tax dollars to raise $20 million from corporations and other foundations.

Now, foundation President Scott Hippert says, it stands a chance of parlaying Virginia's investment into millions more under the Obama administration's Race to the Top education initiative. But to be competitive for that and other funding opportunities, Virginia needs to continue its investment.

Instead, Hippert says, House leaders would zero it out. That's where the House budget started, anyway, when the Appropriations Committee unveiled it last Sunday. Budget figures are moving targets as the House and Senate work to finalize separate bills, then to reconcile their different versions of the state's two-year spending plan.

Families with young children in day care should hope the final mark lands close to the Senate side. That Democratic-led chamber cut much less deeply into K-12 funding and stayed its hand on early childhood education, as well.

Yes, everything must be on the table when lawmakers are looking to slash $4 billion more from an already austere budget. The Early Childhood Foundation can be no exception.

The Senate went along with Kaine's proposed 15 percent cut. Gov. Bob McDonnell, the state GOP's standard-bearer, suggested a 25 percent cut in fiscal year 2011, followed by a 50 percent reduction in FY 2012. The Republican-led House stripped out even that.

"Most of the impact would be at the local level," Hippert said last week in a phone interview.

Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke is running on local contributions and a small bit of federal stimulus money these days, with United Way of Roanoke Valley serving as program and fiscal agent. The collaborative got its start a few years back, though, with a challenge grant from the foundation.

The Virginia Foundation still provides staff support in implementing the Star Quality Initiative in this region, the United Way's Abby Verdillo said last week.

"Although we currently don't receive funding from them, VECF has been a key partner over the years in establishing a strong system for early childhood care and education across the state."

Despite the House and Senate divide in Richmond, support for public and, in this case, private early childhood education should be nonpartisan.

Hippert noted that the Virginia Foundation is a largely business-led public/private partnership created under Warner -- a successful businessman -- "to bring accountability, efficiency and stronger results" to early childhood education by bringing local efforts under one tent.

"It's a business issue when we project down the road," he said. "We're going to have a workforce shortage. We need to invest in kids with the long-term goal of maintaining a highly productive workforce.

"We've made very modest investments, and we're starting to move forward. The last thing we need to do is start going backward."

Strother is on The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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"Successful third grade reading strategies do not begin in elementary school; reading proficiency is the culmination of a variety of experiences and skill building beginning in the earliest years of a child's life."

Kathy Glazer, President of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation

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The United Way of Roanoke Valley serves as the fiscal agent for Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke.

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