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Opinion Working together for better early-childhood education in Virginia

A KinderCare early-childhood facility in Fairfax in  2016.
A KinderCare early-childhood facility in Fairfax in 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Pamela Northam, the first lady of Virginia, is a former pediatric occupational therapist and science educator. Janet Howell, a Democrat, is a former educator who represents parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties in the state Senate. Siobahn Dunnavant, a Republican, is a practicing physician who represents western Henrico and Hanover counties in the state Senate.

Early-childhood education is a magnificent key that opens the doors to curiosity, confidence and skill. These fundamental qualities are the building blocks of personal fulfillment and productivity. It’s never too early to nurture them, and it never gets old to see the natural talents of children blossom into excellence.

We know that curiosity, confidence and skill are inherent in every child. We know they are essential to the success of individual development and to the success of our communities. And we know that access to early-childhood education has a huge effect on the quality of our children’s futures.

The unfortunate reality in Virginia, though, is that we have had uneven access to the resources essential for early-childhood development. The resources that promote school-readiness, lifelong learning and maturing healthfully into society and careers are not uniform across our state. This uneven access leaves behind too many children and has a real impact on our communities, workforce and economy. The opportunity to succeed through education should not be a privilege reserved through affluence or geography; it belongs equally and fundamentally to each and every child.

Research indicates that by age 4 or even younger, brain development has significant influence on long-term scholastic performance and social habits. Studies conducted across multiple states have correlated early-childhood education with higher attainment metrics in IQ scores, standardized testing and graduation rates. Even by the time they are in later grades, nearly 75 percent of students who have participated in preschool programs academically outperform their peers who had no preschool. High-quality early-childhood education is shown not only to improve cognitive development but also, very importantly, to promote healthy relationship formation and interpersonal skills. Early exposure to language has been connected with both literacy and positive behavioral outcomes. The benefits of stimulating brain development and encouraging healthy socialization are clear, and the benefits are clearly amplified by our investment at the earliest stages of learning.

We can no longer allow lifelong disparity to begin with voids in the education proven valuable at early ages. Instead, we must advance plans to elevate education and developmental resources for our youngest generations and to honor their potential through equal access and high standards. It is time to improve our system and the outcomes that depend on it.

With collaborative proposals before this year’s General Assembly, we are poised for real progress. We can begin with a reorganized structure that will be more efficient in administering education and informing parents of the availability and quality of resources. More effectively equipping working families with early care and education resources is a critical step toward reducing the long-term implications of uneven access. Greater transparency in spending and performance targets will encourage a more accountable investment of our public funds.

One step toward creating greater accountability for publicly funded programs is to define and unify the standards for early care and kindergarten-readiness and to align program assessments with those standards. We should strengthen our unified system by further aligning licensing standards with uniform quality guidelines to ensure that programs and instructors are prepared to deliver the results we have specified. By enabling a dynamic public-private system, we can ensure adherence to state-level accountability for learning standards, while also allowing regions the flexibility to address their unique population needs.

Successful private-provider programs should be preserved and rewarded for exceptional performance and for effective innovations that can be replicated in peer organizations. In new cooperation between our education and economic development agencies, we can furnish competitive grants to communities and program innovators that exceed uniform performance benchmarks. By incentivizing new avenues for excellence, we will generate greater success statewide through best practices that can be shared and proliferated. Likewise, leveraging shared data on early-childhood development and education will better inform our standards and enable us to align them with essential outcomes such as professional attainment so that we can effectively serve the future needs of our students.

Advancing proposals to strengthen and expand early-childhood resources means that the quality of care and education, and Virginia children’s opportunities to excel, will no longer vary by Zip code or income. Each Virginia child will be presented with open doors to the curiosity, confidence and skill that lead to bright prospects in the classroom and in life.

Let’s promise our children the lifelong benefit of early education. They deserve it, and so does Virginia’s future.

Read more:

Rahm Emanuel: On early education, both parties need to grow up

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Oklahoma is schooling the nation on early education

George F. Will: Know thyself, America

Arne Duncan: Universal preschool is a sure path to the middle class