In the gray days of early January, when Richmonders are trudging through the coldest part of the year, another environment begins to heat up: the Virginia General Assembly. The one hundred delegates and forty senators in Virginia’s legislature meet every winter for either forty-five or sixty days to consider thousands of potential new state laws. This year, the General Assembly kicks off on January 10 in a brand-new, state-of-the art building on Broad Street across from Richmond’s City Hall.
As parents, we always want to give our children the very best life has to offer. During Virginia’s legislative session, caregivers can advocate to build a world of opportunity and success for our kids. Nearly 320,000 children live in the Richmond region, and the laws up for debate during the 2024 General Assembly session have the potential to shape nearly every aspect of their daily lives. Sharing your story with legislators can make a positive impact on Richmond’s youth.
Child and Family Issues in 2024
Child care is unaffordable for three quarters of Virginia families with young children, according to a recent report from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Parents have to pay too much for child care, and early childhood professionals earn too little. Are you one of the thousands of parents who struggle to afford child care? Your legislators need to hear from you. The General Assembly is considering major new investments in our early care and education system to ensure that all children start kindergarten with a solid foundation.
As families continue to recover from the disruption of the pandemic, children’s mental health is another topic of conversation among policymakers. Governor Youngkin has introduced a plan called “Right Help, Right Now” to ensure that mental health care is accessible for all families, including new funds to expand the workforce of therapists who can serve children and adolescents. If you have experience with youth mental health challenges – a growing crisis in our region – sharing your story with lawmakers can make a positive impact on your life and the lives of others.
Schools also have a major role to play in promoting health and wellness for our kids. The General Assembly is discussing new investments in our public education system to increase the number of student support positions, including professionals like school social workers, school nurses, and school psychologists. These talented professionals help keep our students well, priming them for academic success.
Taking care of a family can be expensive, and financial worries can be a significant source of stress for families. Legislators are considering a state-level child tax credit to make caring for children more affordable for families struggling to make ends meet. Also under consideration is a school-meals-for-all program to ensure that public school students have access to breakfast and lunch at no cost.
Legislators must also create a new state budget for the 2024-2026 biennium (Virginia budgets on a two-year cycle). Major federal investments through the American Rescue Plan are coming to an end. This means that Virginia will have less spending money than in the past few years, and legislators will need to make hard decisions about funding for children’s mental health programs, public education, children’s health insurance, and other important children’s services like foster care programs.
Become a Child and Family Advocate
If you’re a parent of a certain age, you may remember the Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just A Bill.” In the decades since Schoolhouse Rock, the legislative process has remained mostly the same, but now it’s easier than ever to follow along and make your voice heard. If you can operate your smartphone, you can become a child advocate!
Legislators always appreciate hearing from you – their constituents, the individuals and families who live in the local districts they represent.
Here are some tips:
- Make sure you know the names of your current state senator and delegate, as they may have changed. This year marks the first General Assembly session with new voting districts drawn during the 2021 statewide redistricting process. You can use an easy online tool, Who’s My Legislator? at VirginiaGeneralAssembly.gov, to find your legislative representatives and obtain their contact information.
- Online tools make it easier than ever to stay informed about laws under consideration by the General Assembly. Visit our state’s legislative information system at Virginia.gov, click on “Bills and Resolutions” for the 2024 session, and search thousands of pieces of legislation by subject matter. You can also follow along with Voices for Virginia’s Children, which tracks bills at vakids.org.
- Your representatives want to hear your stories. You can call their offices, where you will likely speak with a legislative staffer, or you can send an email. It’s important to be brief, direct, and friendly. Tell your representative the exact bill or budget item you want them to support or oppose, and share a brief story about why the issue is personally important to you and your family. Always make sure to mention that you are a constituent and say thank you.
- If the buzz of the General Assembly Building is more your style, in-person advocacy is another option. Voices for Virginia’s Children will host a “Healing for the Healers” (children’s mental health) Advocacy Day on January 23. Or check out your favorite advocacy organization for other in-person opportunities.
Part of our job as parents is to build a more vibrant world for our families. Policy advocacy is one way we can make a difference. Your voice is an important piece of Virginia’s legislative puzzle.