Universal Preschool Falls in Virginia

Via the Washington Post Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Thursday scrapped his campaign promise to provide universal access to pre-kindergarten, announcing that he will instead push to more than double the number of underprivileged 4-year-olds eligible for early education at the state’s expense. Faced with a looming lean state budget and skeptical Republicans in the General Assembly, Kaine (D) said he can largely accomplish his goal to expand pre-kindergarten by focusing on the state’s neediest children — those eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. “We’re coming at it a little differently, because the experience of other states has convinced us to work within the existing system we already have,” Kaine said in announcing his proposal at a day-long education forum…. Preschool programs that meet certain standards — public, private or religious — would be eligible for state funding to serve underprivileged children. Currently, only public schools participate in the Virginia Preschool Initiative. While still an expansion of government into preschool, this is a win for two significant reasons. 1. He canceled his universal preschool program. While he is still offering more spending on preschool (like Schwarzenegger in Calif.), it is not targeted at middle and upper class families and will not be $300 million a year–to replace the private early education market with public school provision. 2. In a change from the previous program targeted to low-income children, which was provided only in public schools, Kaine is now letting non-profit and for-profit private providers, including religious schools, compete for the money in a more voucher-like system. The fact that he is not choosing the Oklahoma public school model is a significant loss to universal preschool advocates. This is a huge change for Kaine who in his campaigning for Governor and even his response to President Bush’s State of the Union address touted access to prekindergarten for every family. “There’s a better way. … (than No Child Left Behind) Many states are working to make high-quality pre-kindergarten accessible to every family.” State of the Union Response,” January 31, 2006. It still a government expansion, but a slower one…

Lisa Snell was the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.