Candidates Agree on Preschool Funding
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.