We talk a lot about the importance of quality K-12 public education and how necessary that is for generating the skilled workforce of tomorrow. And, there is no doubt that that is critically important. But, did you know that early experiences from birth to the age of 5 have a key influence on brain development in children? During a child’s first year of life, more neural connections, which include sensory pathways for vision and hearing, language skills, and cognitive functions, are created than at any other stage of brain development.
The path to success in school begins long before a child enters the kindergarten classroom. However, a majority of state funding and regulations regarding expectations, benchmarks, and governance goes towards educational programs for K-12 and higher education, while early childhood education receives significantly less attention and funding. Because so much key brain development occurs before age 5, quality preschool education has a high return on investment — the most of any educational program at any stage of life.
I have always been a strong proponent of early childhood education and recognize that it is important to provide high-quality early childhood services, especially for at-risk children. So, last week, after I attended an Appropriations Committee meeting in Richmond, I met with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF) which releases biennial report cards highlighting data regarding school readiness and risk factors that children experience early in life that can affect their success in school and beyond.
Sharing with you the latest VECF report card, we see that across the Commonwealth there is a high disparity between the poverty rates of birth-age 5 population for children of color versus non-Hispanic white children. For black children, the poverty rate is 29 percent, and for Hispanic children, the rate is 26 percent, compared with 8 percent of non-Hispanic white children.
There are multiple risk factors that influence a child’s propensity of falling into the education gap. These key indicators include experiencing poverty between birth and age 4, being born to teen mothers and mothers who have less than a high school education, as well as low birth weight. A positive trend is that the teen birth rate is steadily declining in Virginia.
Poverty rates following the 2008 recession are also slowly declining, but the 2017 poverty rate for Virginia children birth to age four still exceeds pre-recession levels. The first wave of children born into poverty during the recession entered kindergarten in the 2014-2015 school year, and this wave will continue for the next several years. These children have multiple risk factors of falling behind and struggling in school. Early identification of these children is imperative to ensuring their success.
What can we do to prevent children from falling into this gap?
It is important to identify children and families experiencing multiple risk factors as early as possible to provide them with services and support. VECF has created throughout the Commonwealth, Smart Beginnings, called here the Fairfax County School Readiness Collaborative, which is a locally-driven program that seeks to create partnerships between public and private leadership committed to school readiness, ensuring that communities have the tools to deliver conditions for a strong, healthy start for young children and their families.
This locally-driven system allows for the creation of strategies tailored to the specific needs of each community instead of a one-size fits all mentality. In Fairfax County, the estimated amount of children under age 5 in poverty is 92,543. VECF recommends fostering strong public-private partnerships and leveraging funds from multiple sectors to provide high-quality early childhood services for at-risk children with the most return on investment. VECF suggests the encouragement of employers and the business community to support policies and strategies for high-quality early learning for families by providing incentives.
In our modern society, where it is normal for families to have parents or the single parent working full time, access to early childhood education programs is critical to a child’s development, but also to a strong workforce in the long term. The availability of a well-trained and qualified workforce for Virginia businesses, which in turn will elevate Virginia’s potential for economic growth, begins in early childhood.