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Legislation focuses on preschool programs

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In Washington, D.C., steps have been taken to bring early childhood education to the forefront of conversation.

Not only has the issue been circulated through discourse, but legislation that would expand funding of pre-K programs also has been introduced.

With the introduction of the Harkin-Miller-Hanna Early Childhood Education legislation comes the call for an increased focus on high quality, full-day preschool programs for 4-year-olds.

What is it?

On Nov. 13, the legislation nicknamed the Strong Start for America's Children Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as bipartisan legislation that would help states fund preschool for all 4-year-olds of low-income families and also expand additional early learning opportunities for children ages birth to 5.

Under the bill, states that commit to meeting high quality standards would receive funding based on the number of young children at or below 200 percent of poverty within the state. States still building quality systems could compete for development grants to help meet the criteria for larger amounts of funding. 

States also would have the flexibility to use a portion of the funds for infants and toddlers, and it would help establish partnerships between Early Head Start programs and child care providers.

Where does WV fit?

According to Anna Hardway, Save the Children deputy director of programs for West Virginia, one in three West Virginia children live at poverty level. According to The Education Alliance, seven out of 10 West Virginia students are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Tanya Weinberg, director of media communications for Save the Children, said 4-year-olds from low-income families often are 18 months behind other 4-year-olds developmentally.

Because the bill would completely fund preschool for children from families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, Amelia Courts, president and CEO of The Education Alliance, said roughly 66,000 children in West Virginia would benefit.

Through continued funding of voluntary home visitation programs, Weinberg said, low-income children would gain early exposure to language, bridging the 18-month developmental gap.

In addition to helping children in their early education years, Hardway sees the proposed legislation as potentially providing further-reaching and long-term benefits.

"The best investment is in early education," Hardway said.

Courts echoed that sentiment, saying the research is clear.

"High quality early childhood education can have a tremendous impact on the long-term educational success of children," she said. 

According to Hardway, investing in early childhood education to ensure no child falls behind developmentally results in the child performing better in school, having a higher likelihood of graduating and earning a better living later in life.

Structure already in place

Hardway said one thing that positions West Virginia in a positive direction is having infrastructure already in place to further fund Pre-K in the Mountain State.

Through Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform efforts last year, access to Pre-K programs was expanded to provide more children with full-day, five-day programs, with an increase in the training and qualifications of the teachers in those programs.

With donations and support from early education investors comes additional funding revenue for high-quality services.

One of those investors includes Appalachian Power, which gave $30,000 to Save the Children. The money was exclusively targeted to McDowell County early childhood education programs.

"We have long been involved in support of education and other community improvements in McDowell County," said Mark Dempsey, vice president, external affairs of Appalachian Power.

The closer to home improvements happen, Hardway said, the better the results. 

Investing in the early education of West Virginians will help in getting them started in life.

Socioeconomic benefits

According to Dempsey, the socioeconomic benefits of early childhood education extend well beyond the early education years of a child.

"I think early childhood education is of critical importance," Dempsey said. "Any child who starts behind stays behind. 

"Any child who stays behind ends up dropping out at some point prior to their full potential."

Dempsey also sees both short- and long-term benefits.

"The short-term benefit is immediate improvement in classroom performance," he said. "The long-term benefit is achieving maximum educational potential for each individual. 

"It is broadly acknowledged that the higher education attained, the higher the standard of living."

The Mountain State's socioeconomics would improve dramatically by more fully developing the future workforce, Dempsey said.

"Virtually every company looking to expand or locate have at the top of their list of site requirements a top-notch education system and quality of life issues," Dempsey said. "A top-notch education system starts with a strong early childhood component."

Courts said West Virginia business leaders have taken part in discussions about students needing to be fully prepared for what lies ahead in terms of employment. 

"West Virginia business leaders have been very vocal about the critical need for our students to be fully prepared for the complex and high tech jobs of the future," she said. She said not only would the proposed legislation benefit children but also working parents who struggle to afford quality care for their children.

"The program would be a tremendous help to the many West Virginia working parents who struggle to afford quality care for their children," she said. "Studies show that single parents who have access to quality care for their children are more likely to maintain employment after two years than those without access."

Who pays?

While the issue of pay is still a $100 billion question mark, President Barack Obama has proposed a way to help pay for the investment. 

His idea is a 94 cent-per-pack increase in the tobacco tax to pay for the 10-year, $100 billion investment in early childhood education. However, Congress may decide to consider other approaches, according to information from Save the Children, a worldwide nonprofit organization that responds to emergencies and works to eradicate poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease. The group is rallying the public in support of the bill at www.savethechildren.org.  

If it's funded, Courts said the legislation could have a big impact on the Mountain State.

"This legislation, if funded, could go even further to provide resources to serve some of the state's most neediest children and build on some of the state's successes," she said.