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McDonnell lost interest in Race to the Top, but recent grants for pre-school are the most beneficial.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Like most federal initiatives, the Race to the Top education grants present a mix of pros and cons. Portions of the program are driven by the latest trends in academics, while others are unambiguously beneficial.
It’s a shame that Virginia is punting on the most recent round of grants, which focus on early education improvements, the most worthy goal of the program by any measure. A spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell last week blamed the decision not to participate in part on a reluctance to commit the next governor to implementation of complex and costly education reforms.
It’s the latest reminder of the disruptive effects from Virginia’s prohibition against governors serving consecutive terms. In this case it appears to also be an easy excuse for McDonnell to shrug off an initiative he lost interest in after his initial efforts ended in disappointment.
The governor embraced the program early in his term and pushed state legislators to increase Virginia’s chances for drawing down federal grants by expanding the number of charter schools. Lawmakers watered down McDonnell’s charter school legislation, and the state failed to qualify for funding. McDonnell declined to apply for the second wave of grants, which would have required Virginia to trade in its Standards of Learning for new tests.
This year’s grants, part of a series targeted to early education, are not colored by the same philosophical disputes that dogged Race to the Top in the past. Virginia had the opportunity to compete for up to $45 million to increase accessibility and quality for the Virginia Pre-school Initiative. The voluntary program serves 4-year-olds who aren’t enrolled in Head Start, but it doesn’t reach all children who qualify.
The Kids Count report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 52 percent of Virginia’s 3- and 4-year-olds, or 105,000 children, were not enrolled in preschool during the study period from 2009-11. That’s still an improvement over previous years, but it shows how far the commonwealth must go to ensure a quality education for children during the key years up to age 6 when most brain development takes place.
The consequences of inadequate investment in early childhood education pile up over the span of each generation. As the Kids Count report notes, 61 percent of Virginia fourth graders are not proficient in reading and 60 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math, according to 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores. The data translate into millions of dollars in remediation programs and unsatisfying high school graduation rates.
Governors in both parties have long recognized the value of early education. They include Republican Gov. George Allen, whose administration launched the Virginia Pre-school Initiative. All of them, like McDonnell, had four-year terms. Let’s hope that the next chief executive places more of an emphasis on pre-school programs. Unfortunately, he will have to do so without the Race to the Top grants, which will have been distributed to other states before he takes the oath of office.
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