Recent experiences shined harsh light on the failures of our country’s child care system. Even prepandemic, families faced sky-high child care costs or lacked access to early education programs. The child care workforce, primarily Black and brown women entrusted with caring for and educating young children in their most vulnerable and brain-building time of life, rarely made a living wage. Child care businesses struggled just to break even. The most regrettable failure of all has been our inability to ensure young learners arrive at kindergarten with skills needed to be successful.
These issues worsened during the pandemic as thousands of child care programs closed, and parents had to choose between caring for their children or working, leaving no doubt that stable quality child care is necessary for a functional society and economy. This is the message of the Virginia Promise Partnership, a coalition of like-minded organizations promoting access to quality child care for all Virginia families by 2030.
Decision-makers in Richmond are hearing the message and have taken significant steps during this year’s legislative session to use the 2020 disruptions to live up to this promise.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia’s legislators made a promise both to young learners and to working families by passing legislation and budget amendments supporting the school readiness of at-risk preschoolers, and the child care needs of working families through increased funding and improved policies for Virginia’s Preschool Initiative and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF) Mixed Delivery program. Their commitment to front-line, hard-working early educators is demonstrated by funding for Teacher Recognition Grants for this underpaid workforce. Because the grants have been shown through a University of Virginia randomized controlled trial to increase retention of teachers by 23%, they benefit the educators, their employers and children in their care who benefit from consistency in key relationships and environments. The governor’s G3 program of free community college for low-income students is another significant measure to support early educators who are part of an eligible priority industry.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s House Bill 2206 expanded eligibility so more parents can access child care during this disruptive time when they need to work or seek employment. Under her bill, parents making up to 85% of the state median income, or about $60,000 a year for a two-person household, will be eligible for child care assistance. Families impacted by pandemic layoffs can apply for assistance during their search process rather than wait until they find jobs. And by immediately removing a child support reporting requirement, the bill eliminates a major barrier for many low-income single parents.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s Senate Bill 1316 promised child care operators better financing practices to help cover fixed costs and raise wages for early educators. Delivering child care subsidies through predictable contracts can stabilize the industry, support increased wages for early educators and expand quality experiences for children. McClellan was joined by Del. John McGuire to resolve a long-standing problem at a time when qualified staffing especially is challenging. By making background checks safely “portable,” this legislation enables child care businesses to tap into substitute pools keeping classrooms consistently performing when children and families need them most.
And as the General Assembly debated the challenging issue of legalizing marijuana, there was consensus to dedicate 40% of future proceeds from sales to preschool services for an estimated 20,000 at risk 3- and 4-year-olds. While these funds will not be available for several more years and will not fully fund access to child care for all Virginia families who need it, the proceeds will add an important source of dedicated funding for many years to come.
Who could have foreseen that out of the crises of 2020, the promise of profound change would emerge? This session’s early childhood wins signal bipartisan recognition of the need to build Virginia’s effective child care system from the ground up. A February poll by the Virginia Promise Partnership demonstrates that voters agree, with 81% stating that expanding access to early education personally is important to them and 96% of voters indicating the importance of state and local elected leaders doing more to make sure families have access to affordable options for early education in their communities.
Virginia now must build on this progress to take bold action and expand equitable access to game-changing child care services. Working together in this election year to ensure that leaders at every level commit to this goal, we can make significant strides to deliver on the promise of school readiness for every child in our commonwealth.
Kathy Glazer is president of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, an organization that creates results-oriented partnerships to ensure that the commonwealth’s young children are healthy and prepared for school, life and workforce success. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org