Nearly one-third of the preschool slots funded by the state of Virginia went unfilled last year because local governments did not provide the required matching funds, according to a school readiness report produced by Smart Beginnings, an advocacy group.
The findings were presented during a briefing for early childhood advocates at the Reston YMCA on Friday.
Emily Griffey, senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children, urged the state to take advantage of the preschool slots that “are being left on the table.”
Griffey summarized findings from several recent reports on early childhood programs in Virginia. She said home visiting programs, which provide support services to at-risk parents of infants and toddlers, have lost state funding in recent years and only served about one-third of eligible families. Early intervention services for children with developmental delays were provided to only about a quarter of the 60,000 children whose parents expressed concern, she said.
Some Democratic state lawmakers who attended the event said they are committed to increasing access to early learning opportunities for needy Virginia families but cautioned that funding for early childhood remains a tough sell to many Republican lawmakers in the state.
“You guys are talking about good policy, but we have to think about politics,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax).
The Virginia Preschool Initiative was created in 1996 as a state-subsidized pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds from low-income families. The state funded 24,483 pre-kindergarten spots last year. Nearly 7,500 of those slots — or 31 percent -- went unfilled.
Local leaders say barriers to participation include difficulty meeting the required funding match, finding classroom space or qualified teachers, and inadequate per-pupil state funding for the program.
The Smart Beginnings report suggests that many of these concerns could be addressed through policies that make the program affordable to more local governments.
In Northern Virginia, local participation varies widely. Arlington County used 100 percent of its 537 slots, while Prince William County used only 36 or its 1,600 identified slots.