BY MANY measures, Virginia is among or nearly among the 10 wealthiest states, yet its stinginess when it comes to giving the commonwealth’s least advantaged young children a leg up in early education is a long-standing disgrace. It appears not to trouble most lawmakers in the General Assembly that the state, ranked 14th in median household income, spends less to promote access to prekindergarten for children from needy families than 28 other states.
The disgrace is compounded by the fact that state funding per child enrolled in pre-K has plunged by more than 20 percent since 2010, suggesting that Republicans who control the purse strings in Richmond are callous to the issue.
That impression is reinforced by a prominent Republican, Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a candidate in the current GOP gubernatorial primary. “In my view, it amounts to taxpayer-funded day care,” he said of Virginia’s pre-K program, as reported by The Post’s Michael Alison Chandler. “It’s a parent’s responsibility to take care of their own kids during the day until kindergarten.”
Mr. Stewart’s view is at odds with the thinking of the vast majority of educators and contradicts clear research showing that pre-K programs give children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, a lift in reading-readiness, socialization and other skills critical to success in school and life. However, his remark is not surprising given the pattern of indifference in Prince William. With nearly 89,000 students, the county has the state’s second-largest (and nation’s 35th-largest ) school system but long ago turned its back on the plight of poor 4-year-olds who might enroll in pre-K.
In 2013, just 4 percent of the 1,663 low-income Prince William children eligible for the state’s preschool program were enrolled in pre-K — just 72 children in all, thanks in part to a dearth of local funding to supplement state appropriations. Last year, the figure dropped to a meager 2 percent — 32 children out of the 1,609 who were eligible. Very few localities in Virginia, even poor rural ones, do less than Prince William, whose Republican officials have defended its policy, citing the system’s rapid growth and overcrowded classrooms. In fact, the real culprit in Prince William is its leaders’ apathy.
The state is to blame for its meager funding, which enables some localities, especially in expensive areas such as Northern Virginia, to beg off the supplemental funding needed to provide high-quality pre-K spaces for every eligible child. Still, some jurisdictions have made strides in recent years. In Fairfax County, which has the state’s biggest school system, nearly two-thirds of roughly 2,500 needy children are enrolled in state-funded pre-K; three years ago, just more than half of those eligible were enrolled.
Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures, including Oklahoma and Iowa, do a much better job providing pre-K for disadvantaged children, thereby increasing their chances of success. Meanwhile Virginia, and localities such as Prince William, just shrug.