Education generic

More than one-third of Virginia children are not ready for kindergarten, according to a new legislative study that says the true scope of the problem isn’t known because less than half of the state’s school divisions participate in the assessment of critical skills to determine children’s readiness for kindergarten classes.

The report to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission on Monday suggested that the General Assembly consider requiring all school divisions to participate in the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program over the next three years in order to assess the abilities of children across the state to enter school with the social skills, self-regulation, literacy and math ability necessary to succeed in the classroom.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Del. Robert D. Orrock, R-Caroline, the chairman of the bicameral legislative commission.

House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said he will introduce legislation this year to carry out the report’s findings, including concerns over the lack of data to assess how many children need help and what kind of assistance would benefit them most. “It will be a structured, multiyear approach,” Jones said.

The new study cited a three-year-old assessment, based on a representative sample of children across the state, that found that 34 percent were not fully ready to enter kindergarten, primarily because they lack the social skills and ability to regulate their own behavior.

“While skills such as literacy are important for success, children find it difficult to learn in kindergarten and subsequent grades if they lack the ability to sit still, listen to their teacher, regulate their emotions, or have constructive and positive interactions with other students,” the study states.

However, only 63 of Virginia’s 132 school divisions participate in the kindergarten readiness program, so the study says it lacks more recent assessments of children’s preparedness for the first rung of education. “Without statewide participation, it is not possible to know whether each child is ready, or in what domains each child needs to improve to be successful in kindergarten,” the study states.

Emily Griffey, policy director at Voices for Virginia’s Children, said a literacy-based screening tool her organization uses offers another way of assessing children’s readiness for kindergarten, but she welcomed the findings of the sweeping JLARC study and its recommendations.

“These are good low-cost, high-impact ways we can make a difference,” Griffey said.

The study examines the effectiveness of the 34 programs Virginia administers use to improve children’s chances of success in school, but JLARC staff said the state is hampered by lack of consistent funding to carry out some programs and inability to adequately assess the quality of others, including the Virginia Preschool Initiative. The initiative serves more than 18,000 at-risk children at a cost of more than $110 million in state lottery and local matching funds.

However, JLARC staff estimates that as many as 5,000 children in 53 school divisions who are eligible for the program aren’t able to participate, either because the locality lacks money for its share of the funding or the school space for preschool instruction.

“Thousands of children each year, largely due to funding constraints, aren’t being served by the program,” said Justin Brown, associate director of JLARC who supervised the project team.

The preschool initiative has demonstrably improved the literacy of children entering preschool, compared to children enrolled in the federal Head Start program or not receiving any prekindergarten instruction, the study says. But the state cannot ensure that children in the program are receiving high-quality instruction, especially in the crucial interaction with teachers.

The report suggests that the General Assembly find money to help the Department of Education monitor the program more effectively and require classroom assessments of teacher effectiveness at least once every two years.

The study also generally gives high marks to seven home-visiting programs that aid thousands of expecting mothers and families in addressing risky behavior and improving the odds for children to succeed in the classroom. “Participants often have better outcomes than those who do not participate, both nationwide and in Virginia,” the report states.

But the programs suffer from lack of administrative support and reliable funding, the study concludes. “The funding for home visiting programs in Virginia is unstable and difficult to predict each year, and this instability hinders the ability of the programs to operate consistently and strategically over time.”

The report also examines a child care subsidy program, primarily federally funded, that in recent years has begun to address the importance of quality care in helping children at critical stages of brain development that could determine later success or failure. The staff suggests the option of creating a pilot program through the Department of Social Services to provide higher reimbursement rates to child care providers who “demonstrate higher quality care.”

One other option suggested by the JLARC staff would be to repeal a state tax deduction for child care that the report found to be “minimally effective” in helping families pay for quality care. The estimated savings of more than $27 million would help the state pay for improvements to the early childhood education programs it administers.

Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, bridled at the idea. “The tax credit you’d do away with has helped a lot of families,” Howell said.

However, Jones welcomed the option. “The budget is about choices,” he told the commission.

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