Advocates Say Early Education Is a Good Investment

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Faced with a slowing economy, Fairfax County early education advocates are picking up the pace to keep pre-kindergarten a priority.

At a forum of regional business leaders, philanthropists and educators last week in Tysons Corner, local officials argued that funding early childhood education pays off.

"Now, more than ever, is the time to be making this investment in early education," said Vera Steiner Blore, executive director of Fairfax Futures, a county-funded group that organized the forum. "If kids get off to the right start with critical thinking and problem-solving skills . . . all of us reap the reward," she said.

Blore said that spending for early learning brings dividends by reducing rates of remediation, crime and unemployment.

Momentum to strengthen early childhood education has grown significantly nationwide in the past decade as research has shown positive effects on student performance and behavior.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) campaigned in 2005 on the principle of universal access to quality pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds but pared down his vision (and price tag) to expanding access for children from low-income families.

Virginia's state budget for pre-kindergarten education grew by 13 percent to $60 million this fiscal year. The two-year budget includes another increase to $68 million next fiscal year. But with a state budget shortfall that some estimates put near $1 billion, it's unclear whether that funding will be trimmed.

But local officials are anticipating another change that might help expand pre-kindergarten programs in Fairfax in the near future.

The state is expected to adopt a new formula for distributing matching grants that would make it more affordable for the county to obtain them.

The school system receives state funding for about 50 pre-kindergarten classrooms, a figure officials are hoping to increase, said Maura D. Burke, who oversees early childhood education for Fairfax schools.

About 85,000 children countywide are in some kind of child-care setting. Fewer than 800 receive funding through the state pre-kindergarten initiative.

The county's Office for Children licenses 1,800 in-home or center-based programs and offers training to help child-care workers provide high-quality educational programs.

In addition to boosting funding, Kaine has overseen the development of a quality rating system to evaluate child-care settings and the creation of the Office of Early Childhood Development.

"He's getting the pieces in place, so when there is money, it will happen," said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a District-based advocacy group, who spoke at the forum.

Doggett said that the push for pre-kindergarten might slow because of financial strains but that it is unlikely to stall. According to an analysis by Pre-K Now, 32 states, including Virginia, increased spending in pre-kindergarten programs for this fiscal year, despite the economic downturn.

Fairfax has taken extra steps by building a network of business leaders and philanthropists to press for policy change and fund local pre-school initiatives. The public-private approach is regarded as a model in other counties, officials said.

Capital One, the credit card company based in Tysons Corner, hosted last week's forum. Officials there said the company has funded early childhood learning initiatives for the past decade, donating about half a million dollars last year.

"We are investing in the workforce of the future," said Katherine Busser, Capital One executive vice president, adding that the company does not expect to reduce its investment in the weakened economy. "When things are tough, it's important to push harder," she said.

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