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Virginia Lawmakers Consider Redesign of Early Childhood Education Programs

Toddler handing toy to another
(Photo: Bill Kasman/Pixabay)

Lawmakers are considering a big overhaul of early childhood education programs in Virginia, one of the biggest of which would be bringing different programs together under the same jurisdiction and oversight.

Final costs aren't known, but the governor has proposed $95 million for early childhood education. That's not enough for a total overhaul, though, so some programs will need to apply for grants or seek other funding sources.

Legal reporter Whittney Evans spoke with education reporter Megan Pauly about the proposals for VPM - their conversation has been lightly edited and transcribed below.


Evans: From the State Capitol in Richmond, I’m Whittney Evans. I’m here with our education reporter Megan Pauly to talk about some big proposals to improve the early childhood education system here in Virginia. Hey, Megan.

Pauly: Hi, Whittney.

Evans: So – first lady, Pam Northam, has been leading these efforts. In 2018 she hired Jenna Conway as the state’s first “school chief readiness officer. ” who’s been diving deep into Virginia’s early childhood programs statewide . Now lawmakers are working on a big redesign. 

 Pauly: Right, big picture it’s about rethinking how we define early learning...and creating unified standards for the care kids receive in these classrooms.

I spoke to Emily Griffey about this, she’s policy director for Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Griffey: We've created distinctions between sort of child care preschool, nursery school in the state that are not really distinctions in practice and reality.

Pauly: Right now, depending on which of those buckets your program falls into  – it’s held to different standards for things like health and safety, and licensed by different state agencies.

If you’re running a public program – like The Virginia Preschool Initiative, known as VPI or Head Start – that’s licensed by the Virginia Department of Education, or VDOE. But if you’re running a private childcare center, out of a church, for example – that licensing work is done by the department of social services.

Jenna Conway, Virginia’s Chief School Readiness Officer, said this redesign would move ALL licensure and accountability responsibilities over to VDOE:

Conway: We will have one voice saying here's what we expect in terms of health, safety and quality for all of our programs that take public dollars to serve our most vulnerable kids.

Pauly: That will mean moving administration of a big grant to that department, too. And physically moving about 150 social services staff over to the department of education. Conway says getting people moved over and situated will be one of the first priorities.

Evans: What have lawmakers had to say about this? 

Pauly: Most lawmakers are on board. But some, like Republican Senator Stephan Newman, have concerns about what this will mean for private providers. 

Right now, for example, private faith-based programs only have to have staff complete background checks and self-certify annually that their program is in compliance with health and safety standards.

A couple weeks ago, Newman asked if private providers could keep some of that flexibility around which of the new standards would apply to them.

Newman: Can you opt-in to make sure parents understand you have a high-quality product, but opt out of what is pretty tremendous minutia in the bill.

Pauly: Conway said that yes, centers can opt into quality improvements, classroom observations… without a change to current health and safety standards. 

But if they do end up seeking public funds, then they would be held to all of the same standards that public preschool programs are. 

Evans: Okay. And what are these quality improvements that centers can OPT IN to? 

Pauly: Well that’s still in the works. An advisory committee will help develop these unified measurements. But I did get a sense of what Conway wants to include, based on work the state has been piloting through a federal grant. 

Conway: How do you measure those really valuable interactions between kids and teachers across classrooms? 

She wants to look at things like: how warm and caring providers are? Measuring soft skills, as well as concepts students are learning. There’s a lot of other work going into this as well. 

Evans:  So what about funding for this? How much is this going to cost?

Pauly: The Northam administration has proposed about $95 million to help increase access to preschool across the state. Some of that would be set aside for localities with students on waitlists for preschool programs, for example. Some of it - localities will have to submit grant proposals for.

Lawmakers have kept most of this funding in their respective House and Senate budgets, but have reduced funding in a couple of other important areas like grants for public/private partnerships. 

Evans: Thanks for the update, Megan.

Pauly: Thank you!

Evans: And you’re listening to VPM News. 

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