Every year, millions of dollars worth of preschool funding goes unused. Here in Alexandria, for example, Virginia offered $1.6 million worth of matching funds for preschool programs in the city. But only $945,000 was raised to offer for the match, leaving $655,000 unspent. The way Virginia law currently works, that money goes back into the general fund. But a bill introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) would set aside that unused money for a new grant program aimed at expanding access to preschool rather than having the money spent on prisons or tax credits for corporations.
“Some people just don’t understand how important preschool is to a successful outcome for success later in life,” said Ebbin. “It’s important for communities to have access to preschool funding, and we don’t want to limit it to communities that have money for a match.”
Here in Alexandria, one in four children show up for the first day of Kindergarten without a quality preschool experience. And even though 315 Alexandria children are participating in the Virginia Preschool Initiative, more names are being added to the waiting list every year. And because of the sluggish economy, more and more parents are falling on hard times. That means more and more children are eligible to participate in the program, which covers families that struggling to get by at 250 percent of the poverty rate.
“These are all at-risk children from disadvantaged families,” said Carol Farrell, director of the Alexandria Office of Early Childhood Education. “These are needs that are currently unmet, especially in rural parts of the state.”
INCREASING ACCESS to preschool has been a goal in Alexandria for years. Recent years have seen some increase, although the demand remains much higher than supply. Last year, former City Manager Jim Hartmann added $450,000 to the Department of Human Services to reduce the number of children on the waiting list for preschool. The appropriation provided access for about 64 families. In addition to that, Alexandria City Public Schools recently added several school-based preschool programs that now serve 112 children. And yet even though more children are being served, about 100 children are still on the waiting list.
“We’ve been chipping away at that waiting list every year for the last four of five years,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka, who added the bill to the city’s legislative package. “Our schools have constrained space, so we are running into the challenges of finding places to even put these classrooms.”
This year, Alexandria turned down about half a million dollars worth of matching funds for preschool. If Ebbin’s bill is successful, that money would go into a newly created grant program known as the Virginia Preschool Initiative Fund Program. The funding could be used to offer training for preschool teachers or to purchase materials and supplies for a new classroom.
“The governor did cut back on the amount of money he put in the budget this year for the Virginia Preschool Initiative,” said Alexandria legislative director Bernard Caton. “So it’s unknown how much will be left over.”
THE FUNDING FORMULA for the Virginia Preschool Initiative is based on an assumption that providing pre-Kindergarten costs about $6,000 for each student each academic year. But because the actual cost of providing the service is much more expensive than that, city officials say, the match received from Richmond turns out to be less than half the cost. Part of the reason for that is the diversity of different settings where the classes are offered, which include everything from school-based classrooms to private preschool classrooms
“The cost of a private preschool is, on average, about $9,800 for a 4-year-old for a full year,” said Farrell. “So we not only have to come up with a match, we also have to come up with a way to locate the rest of that funding.”
Preschool is not mandatory, and some parents may not be interested in sending their children to preschool or may not know about the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Those who want to participate must put their name on a waiting list and hope for a slot to open up. Krupicka said that closing that waiting list will be a personal goal as he begins his final year in office.
“Closing the waiting list does not mean that we are serving every child in this city,” said Krupicka. “So the next step in the process after closing the waiting list is finding a way to reach out to families around the community and let them know that this is a service that’s available to them.”