Another school year is beginning, and if your household is like ours, you have been busy the last few weeks with preparations. Buying school supplies, figuring out bus schedules or carpool arrangements, and possibly finishing up that summer reading before the first bell rings.
In the rush of activity, you might not realize that preparation for your children’s success in school actually began years ago – before they ever started kindergarten. What our kids experience in early childhood has a profound effect on whether they start school ready to learn. That knowledge is leading Governor Ralph Northam’s administration to consider major policy changes to improve early childhood education.
The Governor’s efforts are spearheaded by First Lady Pamela Northam, a former pediatric occupational therapist and educator who chairs the Children’s Cabinet. She recognizes that young children are learning no matter the environment – at home, at a childcare center, or in a preschool classroom. Research shows that quality of care can have a profound impact on a child’s development, and the most important components are the relationship and interaction between caregivers and children.
The Childcare Challenge
Families throughout Virginia are challenged to find high-quality childcare, and they may not know what constitutes quality. Many parents do not realize that Virginia has a formal quality improvement system for childcare providers; unfortunately, only 13 percent of young children are in childcare centers or with home-based providers who participate in that program.
The cost of childcare also puts quality childcare out of reach for many families. The average cost of center-based infant care in Virginia ($13,728 per year) is more than the average public college tuition in Virginia ($12,820 per year). The Commonwealth offers financial assistance for childcare through subsidies, but many families who need this assistance do not receive it.
“Currently, over 70 percent of economically disadvantaged families with 3-year-olds lack access to affordable, quality early care and education,” said First Lady Northam. “We envision a Virginia where working families are able to pursue their dreams because they have safe, dependable, and quality care for their children.”
What About Preschool?
The disparity in access to preschool is especially pronounced, which leads to some children being better prepared for kindergarten than others. Statewide, only 36 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds who are in economically disadvantaged families attend preschool, compared to 55 percent of their peers in higher income families. Kindergarten readiness assessments measuring important literacy, math, and social-emotional strengths show that 40 percent of children in Virginia arrive at school unprepared to succeed.
In July, Governor Northam signed an executive order creating his leadership team on school readiness. The team will develop a plan to expand access to early education for all at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds and ensure that all publicly funded programs serving children birth to five years old are measured as part of a uniform quality rating system by 2025. The team’s report is due to Governor Northam by the end of this month, indicating that his budget for the next biennium, released in December, will likely include a significant investment in early childhood education.
Advocate for Children
While we wait to see what the Northam administration will propose, child advocates have many opportunities to share their views on the importance of access to early childhood education for all children and families.
All 140 seats in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates are up for election this year, and campaign season is in full swing. Take time to see who is running in your district (visit vpap.org). Candidates may knock on your door or participate in community events
or forums where you can interact with them.
Questions you might ask include:
• How do you plan to make high-quality childcare accessible to more families who struggle to afford it?
• How do you propose leveling the playing field so all children can start kindergarten ready to learn?
If you feel inspired, share your family’s personal experience about childcare or preschool. It can help candidates remember this issue
and ensure they know that the \voters in their district care about young children.
Photos: Jack Mayer, Office of the Governor