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Federal Grant Expands Preschool Slots in Virginia, Continued State Funding Uncertain

Early childhood education is a top priority for Virginia First Lady Pam Northam. Last June, she created a new position to supervise Virginia Department of Education's work on getting kids kindergarten ready by age five.

But one preschool program is at risk of losing funding this year as budget negotiations move forward in the General Assembly.

The Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) is designed for at-risk four-year-olds. The program is run primarily out of local public schools. Its goal: remove barriers like access to proper nutrition that make it hard for kids to succeed in the classroom.

It’s been around since the 90s. But four years ago, the state received a federal grant to improve the program and open up more preschool slots across the state. This additional program was called VPI plus.

Dhan’Michelle Tutwiler is a preschool teacher at Westview Early Childhood Education Center in Petersburg. Her classroom was one of four new preschool classes the district was able to add thanks to the federal grant.

“We're able to go on field trips so we're able to expose the kids to learning outside of the classroom,” Tutwiler said. “We're able to bring people in to train our teachers and to help us expand our knowledge.”

For Tutwiler, that professional development has been crucial. All 13 participating districts were able to hire at least one part-time classroom coach with grant funds. According to Virginia’s Department of Education, the grant also opened up 1,500 new preschool slots statewide, and served a total of about 13,000 students in either new or improved programming, along with external evaluations of student progress.

But unlike the regular preschool program that requires some local funding, VPI plus slots rely solely on federal grant money -- which runs out this year.

“We're asking the state to put in some additional investment to cover what the feds have been paying for our VPI plus slots,” said Emily Griffey, Policy Director for Voices for Virginia’s Children.

She wants to see the state fill the funding least until the following year when districts can begin to pay for their share. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has put $9.7 million in his budget to do that.

“It doesn't put the locality on the hook for covering all of it this first year, which unfortunately would be a pretty big pill to swallow,” Griffey said.

Without additional state support, Petersburg wouldn’t be able to continue funding two out of their four new preschool classrooms. “We don’t want to backtrack,” said Kelly Tobey, Director of Teaching and Learning for Petersburg Public Schools. “We want to be able to maintain the classes that we have.”

But chief budget writer in the House of Delegates Chris Jones isn’t so sure the state should pay for a federal program.

“A problem we have around here sometimes is we ask for grants, and we don’t anticipate when they’re going to run out,” Jones said during a committee meeting last week. “And then when they run out they expect us to come in behind with state dollars and fund it as if it were a federal program. Well, they don’t have to be fiscally responsible in Washington.”

But the state might have the extra money. The regular preschool program has been funded historically through the state lottery, and the lottery fund is growing. It’s seen a  10 percent uptick in revenue already this fiscal year.

“When we have this kind of increase, this is what it should go to,” said Griffey. “It should go to this additional opportunity for kids to enter school ready to learn.”

After all, the Virginia Department of Education says there are more than 3,700 eligible, at-risk students on a waitlist for preschool in the Commonwealth this fiscal year.   

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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