Northam Wants $95 Million More for Preschools

First Lady Pam Northam at a preschool in Warrenton. Photo credit: Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Add another initiative to the ever-spawning list of new spending proposals facing the General Assembly in 2020: Governor Ralph Northam wants to spend $94.8 million on expanding early childhood education for poor Virginia children.

The primary justification offered for spending more on public pre-school is that other states spend more. If these articles in the Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch are any indication, Northam provided no evidence — beyond his intuition — that the added spending would do anything lasting to advanced his stated goal of leveling “the playing field.”

“Where we end up in life has a lot to do with where we start,” Northam said in a statement. “Every child should have an equal opportunity to build a strong foundation, and early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in our children’s health, well-being, and future success.”

First Lady Pam Northam, who has made early childhood education her cause, added this: “Ralph and I with our backgrounds — pediatric neurologist, pediatric occupational therapist originally and then as an educator — saw firsthand every day in our practices how little brains grow exponentially in those first years and how critical that window of time is.”

Academic research shows that early childhood education generally does have positive effects on children, but that the benefits fade as children move into elementary school. Some observers have used the research data to suggest that early childhood education is largely a waste of money; others have argued that the fade-out effect is not inevitable if it takes place in a high-quality environment.

Virginia has about 47,000 at-risk four-year-olds and roughly the same number of at-risk three-year-olds At the start of the current school year, reports the WaPo, about 34,000 four-year-olds and 13,000 three-year-olds were enrolled “in quality early childhood programs.” Under Northam’s plan, an additional 11,000 children would be enrolled over the next two years, still leaving about 30,000 at-risk preschoolers not enrolled.

Given these numbers, the first question I would ask as a legislator is this: Do we have any evidence that current programs have a lasting benefit for at-risk preschoolers? Or would we be spending an extra $94.8 million on blind faith that it might do some good?

The Northam plan would require participating preschools to take part in a classroom assessment program designed to measure and improve the quality of instruction. So, that’s something. Early childhood education also would move from the Department of Social Services to the Department of Education with the goal of streamlining the “crazy quilt” of governance across state agencies. Without knowing the details, I suppose that makes sense.

Republicans may not like the idea of expanding another entitlement for the poor while the middle class continues to struggle. But they are unlikely to be able to defeat Northam’s proposal in a Democratic-dominated General Assembly. However, if they unify, they could muster enough votes to make the program more accountable. They should insist that the program do two things: (1) track the effect of preschoolers through elementary school to see how strong the fade-out effect is, and (2) analyze preschool best practices to ascertain what, if anything, can be done to reduce the fade-out effect.

No one, not even liberals, wants to see the money wasted. If we’re going to spend $95 million more, let’s ensure that we spend it to maximum effect. There is no justification — none at all — for spending the money blindly with no means to determine if it makes a difference.

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28 responses to “Northam Wants $95 Million More for Preschools

  1. re: ” There is no justification — none at all — for spending the money blindly with no means to determine if it makes a difference.”

    see, this is the fundamental difference between Conservatives and Liberals.

    Would you place those same restrictions on ..say… highway projects or MedicAid or Economic Development or Law Enforcement?

    Would we subsequently deny VDOT funding for projects because they did not “prove” they relieved congestion? We’d pull back funding from police for replacement cars because they did not demonstrate lower crime results?

    There are many studies about this particular issue:

    Universal Preschool Works Best For Poor Kids, Study Finds

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/thehechingerreport/2018/04/05/universal-preschool-works-best-for-poor-kids-study-finds/#34c33a6a65b6

    but again, we’ll see a difference here where the Conservative types will almost immediately question the study then try to go find some bogus Heritage or Betsy Devos “study” that will essentially try to undermine the concept and basically oppose more spending even if the thing in question actually needs more funding to be effective.

    There is no question about Pre-school except among the “no Mo Money” folks. It’s a question of how much money and yes, effectiveness but that part will take a decade or more to bear fruit and it, in turn, is related to other things.

    I’m not opposed to collecting data and using that data to determine effectiveness no more or less than I would be for other studies to determine how “effective” MO MONEY is for VDOT or Economic Development.

    The difference is that you use those studies to modify and calibrate the program – not as a primary justification for killing it.

    If we did that, VDOT and Police Depts would cease to exist because we’d have congestion and crime no matter how much we spend….

  2. I think, in concept, pre-schools are a good investment. This a better use of funding than some of those proposals adopted by the Board of Education. My worry is that some of the money would go to “community organizations” and some private pre-K programs. I suspect that these “schools” are no more than day care.

    Many years ago, my daughter attended a private Montessori school, beginning at age 2 1/2. It was excellent preparation for first grade. I wish the state would use the additional funding to support pre-school models that use the Montessori approach.

    I am a proponent of utilizing programs that have been proved to be successful and gathering data to measure the effectiveness or success of what is being funded. Good performance measures are needed throughout government programs.

  3. >>” some bogus Heritage or Betsy Devos ‘study’”

    Ah, yes. The power of argument by assertion, one of the finest subparts of the 14 fallacies.

    • If demerits were awarded for 14 fallacy use, I wonder what the scores would be on this website. . .

    • of course not… but I’ve seen so many “studies” from these groups with right wing agendas that are almost uniformly opposed to the concept itself that I do not put much stock in them unless they are accompanied by other studies less biased and more objective.

      • LarryG’s syllogism:
        Proposition 1: Study X comes from a group with a right-wing agenda.
        Proposition 2: I’ve seen other studies from groups with right-wing agendas that are wrong.
        Ergo: Study X is wrong.

        Don’t expect to persuade anybody with that logic… or win any philosophy awards.

        • Well, you’re right. I need to better articulate the issues but I’ve seen enough of these so-called studies from right-leaning think tanks these days that are not really true “studies”… just policy positions.
          Oh, and the other side does it too.

  4. There is research (not at my fingertips) tying early childhood education to academic achievement in elementary school. If memory serves, the effects do not last forever, but no intervention does.

    Free pre-K is also free childcare. In my area, preschool/daycare tuition for one child rivals the cost of a one bedroom apartment. Free preschool would allow struggling families to invest more in their retirements, healthy food, safer housing, etc. Free preschool might prompt some parents to re-enter the workforce sooner. There is no guarantee that participating families would use the savings constructively. My point is that the free childcare benefits could extend beyond test scores.

    • So, the benefits of pre-school fade. It’s hard for me to understand the value of anything that doesn’t end up with a higher high school graduation rate along with higher proficiency test scores. Isn’t that the point?

      So, pre-school doesn’t generate lasting benefits. Let’s look for corollary benefits …

      Maybe free child care has positives too. Maybe.

      Shouldn’t this conjecture be studied and measured before pouring another hundred million into the program?

  5. This lefty agrees with all the positives about preschool stated above … we have know for 20+ years about the good effects provided by a pre-school foundation, including Montessori schools. I am all for including more and more kids. NY City offers free preschool to all kids … just part of educating the population.

    But would also like to know about the “fade” of the good effects. Maybe there is something that could help that …. Is is mostly about the old summer fade? Or is more about the kindergartens themselves?

  6. And I agree. Pre-school does not “stick” … continuous additional support is needed – to achieve a desired outcome.

    The thing about public school is that it is every changing according to society, demographics, the demands of the economy and it’s by far not a perfect process by any stretch of the imagination.

    But just like VDOT and congestion or police and crime – we do not throw up our hands and say the money is not worth it. We need to do it as cost-effectively as possible and we need to be able to walk away from what does not work – but we do not walk away from the problem and that’s the problem with the “no MO money” folks who often drive us to penny-wise-pound-foolish policies.

    When it costs about $30K a year to keep someone in prison or that much and more to provide them with entitlements – and we are arguing about the “cost” of pre-school – it boggles the mind.

    • “And I agree. Pre-school does not “stick”

      Then why expand it until we can figure out how to make it stick?

      “When it costs about $30K a year to keep someone in prison or that much and more to provide them with entitlements – and we are arguing about the “cost” of pre-school – it boggles the mind.’

      But if pre-school doesn’t “stick” then how does it reduce the prison population?

      • because pre-school is not the SOLE answer. If you want a disadvantaged kid to succeed at school – you have to start with pre-school and CONTINUE IT until they graduate.

        The problem we have is what I call the penny-wise/pound-foolish approach.

        It’s opposition to “MO MONEY” but the other side of it is what if you do not put enough money on the problem to start with and it actually is effective when starved for funding?

        Back up a tiny bit.

        If someone does not get a decent education and they end up costing taxpayers 30K or more a year either in prison or on entitlements – why do we argue about 12 years of schooling at roughly 10K a year as an investment to reduce downstream costs?

        When universal pre-school is proposed, it’s NOT being proposed as THE “solution” but rather one key aspect of a bigger effort – to intercept kids early on that are going to need help – get them that help – and keep it up from then on – until they succeed.

        Yes – it take a Gawd-awful amount of money – no question and we very much should de-fund what does not work but the “No Mo Money” folks are pre-disposed to short funding and de-funding pretty much across the board for public education and they actually want to fund non-public school alternatives – which I WOULD TOTALLY SUPPORT if they also advocated the same transparency and accountability standards that the No Mo folks use to undermine public education .

        If we can fund non-public schools to achieve what the public school are not achieving – AND we use the same level of transparency and accountability – I’m all for it.

        If we want to set up a universal Pre-K program that is not operated by the public school system – and it works – then do it.

        The public schools, like any other agency, like the easy work and don’t do as well with the tougher work – disadvantaged kids with undereducated , low income parents. But I do not think there is any magic in the private sector on this either. We have a mountain of problems with for-profit education providers higher up the food chain.

  7. If we spend $30,000 a year on prison populations then we can certainly spend $8,000 a year on disadvantaged kids for a program we know has proven to increase their ability to function in school.

    It’s worth a shot. No reason to not expand program that shows promise … but maybe we should also find out what is the reason for the ‘fade’ and what could we do to stop the ‘fade’.

    • The $8,000 / $30,000 comparison is completely invalid. If pre-school value fades while the child is still in school then why you think that the faded benefits have any impact on the probability of incarceration?

      No reason not to expand the program? I can give you 94.8 million reasons not to expand a program that even liberal commentators on this blog say is a failure. The benefits fade. In other words, they go away before they do any good. The real question is why anybody would expand a program where the benefits fade before any benefit is achieved.

      This is just another example of Gov Northam trying to get personal redemption for his blackface / coonman / klan date issues using taxpayer money.

      If the benefits fade before it matters – why would anybody do this?

      • If you take the short view that universal pre-school is not worth the money because it does not “stick” – it’s like saying that if you change the oil in your car but it breaks down 5 years later that the oil change was not “worth” it.

        It’s that kind of logic.

        You need the maintenance… there is no one-time fix except in the minds of those who hate spending money on continuous things.

        With that mindset – VDOT or the Criminal Justice system is a colossal failure, right?

        So if VDOT asks for more money – it’s bad money after good, right?

        • It has nothing to do with changing the oil in your car. Pre-school, as currently implemented, doesn’t work. That’s what “the benefits fade” really means. That means pre-school neither improves the high school graduation rate nor the proficiency test scores of those who go through pre-school. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s the opinion of all the commentators on this blog who want to not only continue but expand this apparently useless program. Funding a program where the benefits of the program “fade” before they become of value is insanity.

          You see some need for pre-school for life I guess. Or, at least, additional pre-school like support for students from pre-K through high school graduation. Unfortunately for your argument this already happens in Fairfax County. The student / teacher ratio is adjusted based on poverty indicators for each school. Schools in more affluent areas have a higher student to teacher ratio. Guess what? Pre-school benefits still fade.

          Why would anyone support expanding a program that doesn’t work until BigEd figures out how to make it work? It doesn’t work now, everybody seems to agree on that.

          Policy Student made the only cogent argument for continuing (let alone expanding) this program – it’s a form of free day care that may or may not have value for the parents of the children receiving the free day care. Personally, I’d rather pay working parents with financial need a stipend to buy day care since some families don’t want or need day care.

          The biggest benefit of the criminal justice system is protecting society from criminals – which it does just fine. VDOT expenditures work just fine most of the time. Look at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project for example. There’s just not enough transportation projects being funded.

          You’re telling me that pre-school, as it is implemented, doesn’t work but we should expand it anyway. It must be nice to be so free spending with other people’s money I guess.

  8. Of course it is not a valid argument but it does point out that prison might be the real possibility for kids who don’t succeed in school.

    No one said the program is a failure. They said there is proof that the program succeeds but the success gets diminished over time.
    Noone says the benefits go away before they do any good. You say that, so on what basis you make that judgment? Noone said the benefits “fade before it matters.”

    Since most agree that the program does succeed … the question is … IF it fades when and why.

    • Then let’s define what matters … I’ve provided my definition:

      1) Increased high school graduation rates and;
      2) Higher high school proficiency test scores

      Nothing else should matter. Now, do the pre-school benefits “fade” before high school graduation or not? If so, the program is not succeeding. If not, when do the benefits fade? At 65 when the student enrolls in Medicare?

  9. Universal Pre school is a key COG that is missing in the K-12 education machine.

    It’s like having a Walmart but skimping on the parking lot.

    or telling VDOT they spend too much on snow removal or fixing rural roads, etc… or pretending that low-income folks don’t need health care.

    We do not want ineffective programs – we do need to monitor them for effectivness – for cost-effeciveness but when we basically attack the concept itself – that’s the problem.

    We’re ALWAYS going to have traffic congestion, criminals, poor folks on entitlements… etc…

    but we do not stop funding them or deny new funding for initiatives to improve them.. it’s a continuous process…

    Virtually every school system in other countries has a pre-school approach and it’s not surprising that we fall short on academic performance compared to them.

    We’re behind the rest of the world.

    If you go looking for a doctor or specialist in NoVa or the names of folks in the High Tech sector, – you know what you’ll find? You’ll find that many of them now have foreign surnames – at the same time we have our own folks getting entitlements because they lack the education to get a decent job and the illegals” are “taking their jobs”.

    I do not think universal pre school is THE answer. But I do think for at-risk kids, it’s needed – as well as follow-on … it is what it is…. if we don’t do it – we’ll end up with them being like their parents and the cycle will continue.

    • How long does it take for the benefits of pre-school to fade? If the fade occurs before high school graduation then I’d say the program is useless. What’s the goal? To get the kid through 6th grade?

  10. Come on … we all know there is no such thing as a magic bullet in education. The Duke study I referenced is 2 years old but thorough. The findings come from a task force made up with people from a variety of universities and a few non-profits. I trust their findings.

    … Convincing evidence shows that children attending a diverse array of state and school district pre-k programs are more ready for school at the end of their pre-k year than children who do not attend pre-k. Improvements in academic areas such as literacy and numeracy are most common; the smaller number of studies of social-emotional and self-regulatory development generally show more modest improvements in those areas.

    … Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled-up pre-k on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-k induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.

    In conclusion, the scientific rationale, the uniformly positive evidence of impact on kindergarten readiness, and the nascent body of ongoing inquiry about long-term impacts leads us to conclude that continued implementation of scaled-up pre-k programs is in order as long as the implementation is accompanied by rigorous evaluation.

    There were impressive results … through high school and beyond in the early small scale programs. The reasons for those early successes are now under study. Many think it was an issue with scaling up. One conclusion is that the small scale original Head Start programs operated with strict guidelines, etc and university trained staff. They were also localized programs. Many programs now do not have the same rigor.

    So there you are … sounds worth continuing and is certainly better than not addressing the fact that kids that come to school unprepared do NOT SUCCEED and that those early success rates thru high school and beyond are worth trying to replicate.

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