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JLARC Reviews Virginia’s Early Childhood Programs

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) received a briefing on December 12 on the state’s early childhood development programs, an area in which the state spent approximately $144 million in FY 2016 (in general and lottery funds), supplemented by $125 million in federal funds and $61 million in local dollars. JLARC staff evaluated the state’s programs for home visiting and preschool as well as the child care subsidy program and special education services for very young children.

JLARC staff cited the conclusions of extensive scientific research in affirming the value of early childhood programs in improving children’s ability to succeed in school, but emphasized the importance of quality in such programs, arguing that they must be well-designed and be able to be evaluated.

One of the report’s findings is that Virginia does not have comprehensive data on young children’s preparation for kindergarten; analysis of a representative sample suggested that two-thirds of children were ready for kindergarten, but only about half of school divisions conduct such a comprehensive analysis through the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, which includes social skills, self-regulation, literacy, and math. The report recommends that all school divisions participate, so that state early childhood programs could be tailored to address deficiencies found in the screenings. (The Governor’s budget contains an additional $275,000 to continue statewide implementation of the program.) A related recommendation suggests that state agencies improve the use of data on risk factors for young children and families so that services can be better targeted to at-risk children.

JLARC’s report contains a number of other findings and recommendations, including:

  • Virginia’s home visiting programs, in which trained staff assist parents with developing caregiving skills and mitigating risk factors, are largely effective, but are hampered by instability in funding streams.
  • The Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), which offers preschool to at-risk 4 year olds, improves literacy, but the state lacks data on its effect on overall kindergarten readiness. The report recommends the state increase its oversight of the program’s administration at the local level by requiring periodic observation of classrooms, the use of approved curricula, and annual professional development for VPI teachers.
  • The Child Care Subsidy Program could be a vehicle for improving the quality of the instruction delivered by participating providers; because funding may be a barrier to providers offering a higher-quality curriculum, the report recommends that the state make a list of appropriate curricula available, as well as a list of professional development resources for providers. The report also recommends that the state develop a pilot program of tiered payments that offers higher compensation to providers offering higher-quality instruction.
  • The state’s programs serving young children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education, appear to be effective in improving the skills of participants, but the validity of data regarding outcomes across programs could be improved and the state could better target its technical assistance to direct resources to local programs that underperform. In addition, the provision of Early Childhood Special Education in inclusive settings (generally in the same settings as peers without disabilities) could be improved.
  • JLARC staff suggest funding the report’s recommendations by eliminating the state income tax deduction for child care and redirecting the funds to support the improvements discussed in the report. Staff suggested that the deduction is too small to provide meaningful assistance in reducing the cost of child care. This recommendation spurred discussion among JLARC members, with some concern expressed about eliminating one avenue of assistance with child care in order to fund other supports for young children.

The full report is available on JLARC’s website.

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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