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City exploring how it can provide universal preschool to young Richmonders

Eva Colen smiles into the camera outside of city hall.
Eva Colen, senior policy advisor for Richmond's Office of Children and Families, aims to improve care and support for children younger than five years old and their families. (File photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

It’s been more than  a decade since Washington D.C. launched a universal pre-K initiative.  

The city of Richmond has begun studying what it would look like — and what it would cost — to provide universal pre-kindergarten to every three- and four-year-old in the city. Richmond has commissioned a study on the issue from the nonprofit Children’s Funding Project, which also worked with the city of Boston, among other cities, on its recent effort to provide free preschool. 

VPM News’ Megan Pauly spoke with Eva Colen, senior policy advisor for the city of Richmond who leads the Office of Children and Families. Colen has zeroed in on universalizing pre-K as part of her charge to expand high-quality, full-service, accessible and affordable care and support for children younger than five years old and their families. 

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Megan Pauly: What are the benefits of universal pre-kindergarten? 

Eva Colen: We know that this is important because it's good for little brains, and it's good for the families who care for little ones. Ninety percent of your brain is developed by the time you blow your candles at your sixth birthday. And so it's so important that we make sure that we are supporting our children when their brains are developing the most. And of course, there's a financial incentive there, too. Bottom line is we spend a lot more on education and other social services for our children and families who have not benefited from free preschool. If we have children who are entering kindergarten ready to learn and already knowing how to read, we're not spending a lot on reading specialists and interventions at the elementary level and things like that.

We have a lot of long-term research studies that date back to the ’60s, where they've done longitudinal research on children who've participated in free preschool programs. And they see that these kids are much more likely to do things like graduate from high school, have full-time employment as adults, and quite bluntly, cost less [for local and state governments] to support. 

It also has a direct impact on family workforce participation. When Washington, D.C., universalized preschool for three- and four-year-olds, they saw a 10 point spike in maternal employment levels. And so, we recognize that this means that caregivers can work.

Who qualifies for free preschool in Richmond now?

The current publicly funded preschool options are fairly limited in eligibility criteria based on income. So, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which is the state's funded program, is for children whose families are at [or below] 200% federal poverty line — which in Richmond for a family of four, it's $55,000 a year. For Headstart, you have to show a higher level of poverty than [what is required] for the Virginia Preschool Initiative.

Interestingly, when we look at home buying in Richmond, we identify a higher income level as indicative of family financial needs. So, the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, for instance, is a home buying program for families with demonstrated financial need. And you're eligible for that program if you're at 80 to 115% of [Area Median Income], and that equates to about $80,000 - $100,000 for a  year for a family of four. I might be slightly off on those numbers, but the bottom line is it's a lot more annual income than we are using to help to indicate eligibility for free preschool. We recognize that there are many, many, many families that stand in the gap between eligibility for those programs, and the ability to afford preschool for their own kids. 

(Editors' note: According to the land trust website, the income for a family of four to receive assistance is $80,550 - $115,800.)

What’s the status of Richmond’s exploration of universal preschool? 

I would say purely in an information-gathering posture because there's just a lot we don't know. We know that Richmond Public Schools receives the Virginia Preschool Initiative slots based on the state's estimate of families who qualify for that income cap of about $55,000 for a family of four, up to 200% federal poverty level. We know that RPS has had a little bit of trouble over the past few years of filling all of those slots. We also know that families with similar income levels are benefiting from tuition assistance or full scholarships at community providers. So, nonprofit organizations that offer preschool are offering tuition assistance. 

We're trying to assess, at the most basic level, how many three-year-olds live in the city. Because the state has an assessment based on income level, but we aren't able to expand that out. So, we're looking at reaching out to the Office of Vital [Records] with the state to determine how many children were born in 2018 who resided in Richmond. It’s imperfect because it doesn't reflect inflow or outflow, but we're just trying to figure out what's the delta here?

We're also just trying to figure out how much it would really cost. 

How is the Children’s Funding Project assessing cost? 

As they do this cost modeling study, they're looking at two different numbers. One is really the market cost, what families can afford to pay for preschool. And the other is the true cost of preschool — and there’s actually quite a gap [between the two figures.]

Unfortunately, because, typically, families can afford to pay less than it actually costs to run a preschool, that has the greatest impact on the factor that providers can control the most, which is salaries and wages. And so, when we talk about universal preschool as a vision, we're not just talking about access for every three and four-year-old, we're also talking about a thriving early-childhood workforce. We want to make sure every child has access to this, but we don't want to do that by underpaying people [who are] providing that care. 

We want to make sure we're thinking about the real numbers, not necessarily what parents and caregivers across Richmond are currently paying for care, because that doesn't actually reflect the full picture.

What’s the timeline for this study? 

We're anticipating the Children’s Funding Project wrapping up their research by next spring. We're talking broadly about July, because they're also willing as part of their work to help us figure out an implementation strategy. We recognize we'll get the information by next spring — have a clearer idea about implementation planning by next summer. But it'll take a little while to build the runway to implementation at full scale. And as I shared with city council, I want to be very clear that we're not talking about universal preschool next year, that's really important. 

Once we have all of the information, it'll still take some time, not only to figure out how we would do this, [but] to figure out how we even allocate local dollars to this and what our revenue options are. Because in Virginia, localities have very limited options to identify revenue. And in Richmond, like many cities, we have so many needs. And I don't want to go out there and say, ‘Hey, here's how much it costs. We're really excited to use all of this money that is currently allocated to other agencies for universal preschool.’ 

We're also looking at all the funding sources that are available and what might be left on the table. The state, in addition to the free Virginia Preschool Initiative, they also run a childcare subsidy program. And that has much more flexibility around income criteria. It doesn't cover the full cost, but it can be braided in with other revenue opportunities.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.