Several days ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Early Childhood Summit called by Governor Kaine. Held in Richmond at the storied Jefferson Hotel, it was a remarkable kick-off of the Governor’s “Start Strong” initiative to promote investments in “an effective and comprehensive early care and education system across the Commonweatlh….”
According to the Early Childhood Foundation, “… in some Virginia communities, one in three children arrive at kindergarten not ready to learn or succeed.” One of the speakers at the summit, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Dr. James Heckman from the University of Chicago, made it very clear that financing early readiness and education, particularly for at risk children is a very wise investment.
The work of Dr. Heckman and others makes it clear that children who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to finish school, find good jobs, and are less likely to commit crimes. We also know those children unable to read by the third grade, will have his or her chance of success throughout the rest of school is dramatically reduced.
Working on solutions
Governor Kaine is proposing to build on the Commonwealth’s existing pre-school programs—Virginia Pre-School Initiative (VPI), Head Start, plus private and faith-based providers. His goal is to create a flexible network that keeps choices open for parents, while utilizing existing resources so that Virginia can invest in services, rather than bricks and mortar.
Start Strong’s focus will be on approximately 29.000 children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. It will be very similar to the North Carolina program called Smart Start, which was the initiative of former Governor Jim Hunt. Governor Hunt spoke passionately at the Summit of the value of the program to his state and its families.
Governor Kaine made it clear that his goal is covering all at risk children, but he recognized the limited budget flexibility in the current environment.
It will cost at total of approximately $75 million more than envisioned in the Commonwealth’s budget
With his first full budget presentation in December, the Governor will release the amount he will ask the General Assembly to approve for FY2008 and FY2009. I hope he will ask for large percentage of the full cost. All the speakers at the Summit made it very clear that a fully-funded Start Strong will save the Commonwealth money in public safety, health, and mental health budgets in the future, while equipping our young people to compete in a high technology future.