Boldly Reimagining Virginia’s Early Childhood Education System
Healthy growth and development during the first five years of life provide the building blocks for a child’s long-term success. Experiences and interactions during this time profoundly impact early brain development, cognitive abilities, behavior, and the lifelong health of an individual. Children who participate in quality early childhood programs, whether they are center or home-based, are more likely to graduate high school, secure higher wages, avoid incarceration, and lead overall healthier lives.
Access to affordable, high-quality child care is tied to the underlying health of any community and is essential to supporting working families, as well. Unfortunately, widespread lack of access has forced many working parents to reduce hours, turn down promotions or leave the workforce all together. As a result, businesses across Virginia face significant losses in earnings, productivity, and revenue. Virginia’s lack of investment in the child care system disproportionately impacts minority populations, reinforces poverty, and stunts economic mobility.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, 24% of 4-year-olds and 72% of 3-year-olds from economically disadvantaged families lack access to quality early education. High costs continue to be a major barrier. As of October 2020, the average annual cost in Virginia for full-time center-based care is $14,063 for infants and $10,867 for 4-year-olds, accounting for up to 47% of a single parent’s income. The early childhood workforce is also severely under-paid. As of 2019, child care workers received an average annual salary in Virginia of $22,797, well below the federal poverty line.
Despite the need, Virginia does not use all federal funding allotted for early childhood education programs. In the last reporting period, only 5.1% of Virginia children eligible for child care assistance under federal law received it through the Child Care and Development Block Grant.
The ripple effect of lack of access, cost barriers and underinvestment put Virginia’s youngest at a disadvantage before they even start formal schooling. In the fall of 2019, statewide data indicated that 56% of economically disadvantaged students in Virginia started kindergarten behind in one or more key readiness areas of literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills.
The pandemic upends the industry
For early childhood education and child care advocates in Virginia, 2020 started off as a transformational year. The General Assembly session generated tremendous progress in policy and legislation and unprecedented bipartisan support for investments in early childhood programs. The School Readiness Act consolidated, simplified, and streamlined early childhood governance by moving funding streams and oversight from the Department of Social Services to the Department of Education. Over $85 million in new investments proposed by Governor Northam and supported by the General Assembly would now allow programs to reach more at-risk children, improve quality, and better support the workforce that delivers school readiness.
“The resounding recognition of the importance of early childhood was the culmination of years of hard work, leadership, and perseverance by diverse partners across the state,” shared Karin Bowles, Vice President of Strategy at the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF), a public-private partnership that helped spearhead the advocacy efforts. “At the end of session, we were all celebrating this victory! But then the pandemic hit, and everything changed.”
On the heels of the General Assembly, the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on Virginia’s children, families, and communities laid bare the deficiencies of the current systems in place and unraveled much of the optimistic progress being made. “Many of those early childhood investments were unallotted or frozen,” said Bowles, “but on top of it all, it became immediately clear that a new understanding and perspective on the foundational role of child care in society was needed as families struggled with going back to work while juggling virtual learning and school closures.” Moreover, it highlighted the fragility of the childcare industry, where broken business models rely on razor-thin margins. “The childcare industry has been underfunded for a long time. When the pandemic hit, programs had to close because of the increased costs from social distancing, PPE, and/or reduced revenue from mandated limitations in group size and families not wanting or being able to send their kids to child care, etc. It just became very evident what a dire situation this was.”
“It became immediately clear that a new understanding and perspective on the foundational role of child care in society was needed as families struggled with going back to work while juggling virtual learning and school closures.”
According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, of the 6,037 child care programs in Virginia, 62% of child care centers, half of all religious exempt preschools and 20% of family day homes closed at the onset of the pandemic. This equated to 2,414 child care programs closing, leaving a loss in 200,333 slots for Virginia children. A similar percentage of closures happened locally in Greater Richmond. Direct assistance from the CARES Act has helped many centers stay open or reopen; however, the financial losses experienced far exceed the federal funding available. As of March 2021, only 13% of child care programs in Virginia remain closed; however, 44% of those programs serve children and families receiving subsidy assistance.
Rethinking child care and a bold goal
In April 2020, VECF assembled leaders from across the Commonwealth and across sectors to develop a plan for rebuilding the child care system post-COVID. Coined the “Back to Work Virginia Taskforce,” the group was charged with developing recommendations for structural shifts and improved policies and practices that will stabilize and strengthen the industry in the long run. The taskforce met once a month for six months and was informed by a diverse group of local, state, and national experts and stakeholders, including child care providers, practitioners, and families.
“We really explored the current situation and its challenges by looking at the drivers of why the child care system is in this position in the first place. We were pushed to think outside the box for new strategies, new solutions, different financing mechanisms and business models and practices,” shared Sherrie Armstrong, President and CEO of the Community Foundation and Back to Work Virginia Taskforce member. “Ultimately, we knew we needed a bold goal to work towards because child care affects and benefits so many sectors and people in our community.”
“Ultimately, we knew we needed a bold goal to work towards because child care affects and benefits so many sectors and people in our community.”
At its conclusion, the Taskforce proposed a bold goal for Virginia – that all families will be able to access quality, affordable childcare, regardless of income by 2030. “We know that this is detailed, complicated work and it won’t happen overnight,” said Bowles. “All sectors will need to be actively engaged in developing a business and investment plan to re-envision and rebuild a more equitable child care system. Over the next 10 years, we will need to focus on making steady, significant investment and policy improvements.” Recognizing the need for sustained focus and support, the Taskforce also recommended that a new entity and structure be created. And so, the Virginia Promise Partnership was born.
Promise partners lead the way
Formed at the end of 2020, the Virginia Promise Partnership is a coalition committed to ensuring all Virginia families have access to affordable quality child care by 2030. The growing list of members include core early childhood partners and associations, business representatives and foundations. The partners are developing a comprehensive plan that includes short- and long-term policy changes, as well as a cost estimate for the resources necessary to accomplish the goal. This fall, the initial plans will be presented to the incoming Governor.
The Partnership is working on grassroots training for advocates and building public awareness on the importance of child care. Local partners like Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond are working with the coalition to identify barriers at the grassroots level from providers, businesses, and families to inform the business plans. “Even though we are trying to affect systems-level change, implementation and outcomes will happen at the local level, so it’s critical to involve and uplift all stakeholder voices in this process,” commented Rich Schultz, President and CEO of Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond.
VECF currently serves as the backend infrastructure for the Partnership and is nurturing it through the early stages. “Over time, we hope the Virginia Promise Partnership will become the unified voice and champion for the early childhood education movement in our state to achieve this bold goal,” shared Bowles. VECF is in the process of recruiting a Director to lead these efforts. “Access to quality early learning is the best way to realize the potential of every child in the Commonwealth. Ensuring that Virginia’s child care system is equitable, affordable, and high-quality will require all of us to act boldly and in unison to deliver on the promise of early childhood.”
“Ensuring that Virginia’s child care system is equitable, affordable, and high-quality will require all of us to act boldly and in unison to deliver on the promise of early childhood.”
To receive updates from the Virginia Promise Partnership or to help spread awareness about the bold goal and the importance of early childhood education and care, you can “like” and “follow” on their Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You can also “Make the Promise” to support the bold goal on their website.
Make the Promise