Turn­ing a blind eye

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OPINIONS -

In April, the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Early Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search (NIEER) at Rut­gers Univer­sity re­leased its an­nual State of Preschool Year­book. Since 2002, NIEER has con­ducted de­tailed yearly as­sess­ments of fund­ing, ac­cess and poli­cies for state-sup­ported preschool pro­grams. This year’s ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary be­gins with an un­prece­dented note.

“As we write, Amer­ica is fo­cused on the na­tion’s re­sponses to COVID-19,” the re­port said. “This virus has cre­ated con­sid­er­able un­cer­tainty about the re­main­der of this school year, the next school year, and be­yond.”

For our youngest learn­ers, the un­cer­tainty is es­pe­cially high. As we think about ed­u­ca­tion in a post-pan­demic world, turn­ing a blind eye to­ward pre-K is a mis­take.

Chil­dren al­ready lack ac­cess to preschool ex­pe­ri­ences. At the na­tional level, NIEER found that in 2018-19, only 34% of 4-year-olds and 6% of 3-year-olds were en­rolled in state-funded pro­grams. Vir­ginia was well be­low the al­ready sub­par na­tional av­er­ages, with 17% of 4-year-olds en­rolled and no ac­cess for 3-year-olds.

Where is the fund­ing to sup­port them? Ad­justed for in­fla­tion, in 2008, Vir­ginia spent $4,544 per child en­rolled in a pre-K pro­gram. By 2018, per-pupil spend­ing plum­meted to $3,967 per kid. What will the fund­ing be in 2021 and be­yond, as state lead­ers and lo­cal­i­ties scurry to make dozens of de­ci­sions with his­tor­i­cally lim­ited fi­nances?

“We know for 3- and 4-year olds that re­mote ed­u­ca­tion is more dif­fi­cult,” said W. Steven Bar­nett, se­nior co-direc­tor of NIEER, in a Tues­day in­ter­view with RTD Opin­ions. “The younger the child is, the more the in-per­son, hands-on ac­tiv­i­ties mat­ter.”

For K-12 stu­dents, the past two months cre­ated a long list of well­doc­u­mented chal­lenges. As of Wed­nes­day, the Vir­ginia De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion COVID-19 fre­quently asked ques­tions page listed 121 in­quiries. Wor­ries ranged from “Will VDOE can­cel Stan­dards of Learn­ing (SOL) test­ing?” to “Can the VDOE pro­vide any guid­ance with grad­ing and grade point av­er­ages?”

That list fails to cap­ture where the achieve­ment gap be­gins. It oc­curs in kinder­garten, when some chil­dren en­ter with a high-qual­ity pre-K ex­pe­ri­ence, while oth­ers had no such op­por­tu­nity.

“If you miss them, there’s not a sec­ond chance,” Bar­nett said. Early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion should be a top-of-mind con­cern, and there is no dis­tance learn­ing ban­dage for our kids’ crit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment be­fore age 5. The lack of ac­cess and in­vest­ment in Vir­ginia’s youngest learn­ers needed to be ad­dressed long be­fore COVID-19. And if the com­mon­wealth con­tin­ues to un­der­es­ti­mate the value of preschool pro­grams, it risks pay­ing an even steeper price later on.

— Chris Gen­til­viso

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