Gov. Ralph Northam

Gov. Ralph Northam

Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing an expansive investment in early childhood education that would increase the number of state-funded preschool slots for Virginia 4-year-olds and create an incentive program for early childhood educators.

Northam’s plan for infants, toddlers and preschoolers has a $94.8 million price tag and is part of his two-year budget proposal to be unveiled Dec. 17. Northam has touted early childhood education as a top priority for his administration, one that he says will level “the playing field” for Virginia families.

About one in five 4-year-olds in Virginia are enrolled in a public preschool program funded by the state or the federal government. Many children are enrolled in private programs, but the Northam administration estimates that a quarter of 4-year-olds from low-income families lack quality preschool.

Virginia ranked 33rd among states in total dollars spent per preschooler, according to an April report from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Where we end up in life has a lot to do with where we start,” Northam said in a statement. “Every child should have an equal opportunity to build a strong foundation, and early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in our children’s health, well-being, and future success.”

More than half of the proposed funding — $59.5 million — would go toward improving and expanding state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds. Northam is hoping to increase the amount of money the state spends per student and to create incentives for private providers who serve students using state dollars.

Northam’s proposal would also grow the number of students served through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, in part by increasing class sizes.

The current educator-to-student ratio is 2:18 for 4-year-olds. Northam's proposal would raise that to 2:20, which is in line with federal standards. 

The program funds preschool slots at public schools and community-based organizations. It serves children who don’t qualify for federal preschool programs but who may still be “at risk” of academic failure when they start kindergarten.

Northam’s announcement is part of the roll out of his signature two-year budget — the only spending plan Northam will propose and implement before the end of his term in January 2021.

Northam’s other preschool proposals include a $26 million investment to pilot state-funded preschool for 3-year-olds. The funding would create slots at public schools, community-based centers and private pre-K programs.

Northam also hopes to direct $8 million to expand incentives for early childhood educators, particularly those who work in child care centers and in small, home-based settings.

An additional $1.3 million would fund the creation of an oversight and accountability system that would make sure programs funded with taxpayer dollars are meeting quality standards. The initiative would also require new legislation requiring early childhood classrooms to comply with the new standards.

Those standards would be developed and enforced by the Virginia Department of Education under Northam’s plan, which would transition some early childhood programs away from the Virginia Department of Social Services.

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Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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