20170317_MET_READING_JM06

Miharmony Johnson, 4, is watched by her mom, Miesha Johnson, R, as she works on a family portrait along with classmates to celebrate National Reading Month at Martin Luther King Jr. Preschool Learning Center on Thursday, March 16, 2017

Virginia officials are trying to make it easier to teach preschool.

For the first time, students taking early childhood education classes at Virginia’s community colleges can have those credits and degrees automatically transfer to four-year schools. It’s part of a statewide agreement — previously agreements were between just some schools — that lets students still get their bachelor’s degree and teaching license in four years so they can enter what officials describe as an important, yet underpaid, workforce.

The students can still earn a certificate or an associate degree in early childhood education at the community college.

“There was a complete disconnect — a real gap,” said Kathy Glazer, the president of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, highlighting that before the changes, made last month, it wasn’t guaranteed a student’s credits would transfer.

The program is commonly referred to as a 2+2 agreement.

While the state is making a new pathway for preschool teachers, they’re still underpaid.

According to The Hamilton Project, a national think tank, early childhood education majors have the lowest projected earnings for any college major.

“We need them so bad, but the wages are so low,” said Megan Healy, Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief workforce development adviser.

Last year, the median hourly wage for child care workers was $9.82 while the median hourly salary for preschool teachers was $15.59, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley earlier this year.

About 26,000 people make up Virginia’s early childhood teaching workforce and the preschool teachers even with college degrees earn “unlivable wages,” according to the center.

“Early childhood educators are offensively underpaid,” said Ashley LiBetti, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners.

Virginia spends an estimated $1.37 billion on early childhood, according to the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, meaning the area takes up 2.6 percent of the total budget.

Of the 44 states that provided preschools in 2016-17, Virginia ranked 29th in spending, according to data presented to the Virginia Preschool Initiative subcommittee of Senate and House of Delegates members.

“Even though this isn’t a high-paying career, it’s still a very important workforce development priority for the state because of the value of what they do,” Glazer said. “They’re brain builders.”

Said Healy: “Quality child care really is a workforce issue.”

James Madison University in Harrisonburg is enrolling the inaugural group of students for the program, which “stacks” the early childhood certificate or associate degree with the bachelor’s. The first cohort will start in the spring, with other state colleges to follow next school year.

LiBetti said Virginia’s move is in line with best practices across the country.

“It reduces time and financial burden to complete bachelor’s degree programs,” she said. “It’s a helpful opportunity.”

LiBetti, who wrote a study that was published in early December on the preparation of early childhood teachers, said it’s still not a silver bullet in getting more people in the classroom and making them better teachers.

“We can’t guarantee, even with this, that the teachers completing the degrees will be more effective in the classroom,” she said. “What Virginia is doing is exciting and will be useful to early educators, but there’s more to do.”

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Politics/Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers state government and education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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