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Candidates Agree on Preschool Funding

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

HAMPTON, Va. -- Four years after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine made the promise of free preschool to all Virginia 4-year-olds a centerpiece of his campaign, the three men competing for the Democratic nomination have revived the pledge, saying they believe the state should one day provide early education to all children.

Kaine (D) struggled with the ambitious promise through his term, stymied by falling state revenue and a Republican-controlled House of Delegates eager to deny him a political victory. In 2007, he scaled back his $300 million plan to offer free preschool to the state's 100,000 4-year-olds, instead offering to include 17,000 more low-income children in an existing program for at-risk children. He ultimately succeeded in winning $22 million in new funding from the General Assembly, enough for about 4,030 new students to enter the program.

Despite continued gloomy economic forecasts and no guarantee of a friendlier legislature next year, interest in the expansion of publicly funded early education has not waned.

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) calls pre-K education the "the most important thing we can do in public education" and, like Kaine before him, has called for a universal program that would eventually cost $300 million. Brian Moran, a former delegate, also said he wants Virginians to have the benefits of structured preschool education regardless of income. He did not put a dollar figure on his proposal.

Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe said he wants to provide tax credits to low-income families to help them afford preschool, a proposal he said he would pursue even before the economy improves and generates the tax revenue that would ease program expansion.

"This I put in the category of things I want to do immediately," he said. His goal, too, is to one day provide preschool for all. He did not put a price tag on the program but said he will soon be releasing figures for all of his policy proposals.

The candidates met Thursday night for a debate on education sponsored by the Virginia Education Association. Before a crowd of 700 teachers, they offered similar policy prescriptions for improving education, including raising teacher pay and reducing class size.

With the questions posed only in areas with wide agreement among the candidates, the three Democrats sparred over who would be best able to put his plan into action.

McAuliffe brought some teachers to their feet with his cry to create new jobs that would generate tax revenue for schools. As a businessman, McAuliffe said, he knows how to create jobs. Deeds and Moran touted their General Assembly records of working on education issues as evidence they could make their education plans a reality.

"You don't have to take the rhetoric that sounds good," Moran said in a comment apparently aimed at McAuliffe. "But where is the record of standing up for Virginia's teachers?"

McAuliffe said he has such a record, fighting at the federal level.

Before the Democrats debated, the teachers also heard from the Republican nominee, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, who urged embracing the charter school movement and advocated merit pay for teachers.

All three Democratic candidates and McDonnell said they favored expanding preschool programs.

Education experts say it is not hard to figure out why the subject of expanding publicly funded education for young children comes up so often on the campaign trail, in Virginia and elsewhere. Research has shown that early education works for low-income children. And the programs are popular, particularly among suburban voters and women.

"This is like ice cream and apple pie -- you couldn't be against preschool education," said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

Once elected, Petrilli and others said, politicians discover that the programs are complicated to implement. For instance, although research has shown that the publicly funded programs are helpful for low-income children, who aren't as likely to get a jump on learning at home, they are less useful for children from middle- and upper-class families. Officials also face the dilemma of whether to spend on new programs or focus on boosting the quality of existing ones.

Kaine said it was advice from experts that convinced him two years ago that he should no longer aim to provide preschool to all 4-year-olds. Instead, he said he would focus on increasing the enrollment of low-income children in public preschools. Part of the hard-fought $22 million expansion he pushed through the General Assembly has gone to increase the amount spent on each child in the program, in hopes of improving the program's overall quality.

Elected leaders must also contend with hard realities of state budgeting. Funds the governor wants to spend on preschool sometimes must be carved out of budgets for elementary and secondary education. Robley Jones, a lobbyist for the teacher's union that sponsored last night's debate, said that although his members support the expansion of such programs, they don't want to siphon money from their classrooms.

"It put us in a terribly awkward position with some of the childhood advocacy organizations," he said.

The candidates running to replace Kaine insist they will be able to build on his efforts, even in a down economy. They say preschool education would save money in the long run, arguing that children educated early are less likely to drop out or wind up in costly jail cells.

And on that, the experts agree -- as long as state dollars are reaching the poorest children.

"The new gaggle of Democratic candidates needs to think long and hard about whether they are proposing sexy policy ideas, or they are recommending programs that will help lift children out of poverty," said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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