BRISTOL, Va. - Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine pitched his goal of starting an expanded statewide voluntary early childhood education program to a group of business and education leaders Monday.
He didn't offer specifics about how much the program - which could begin in the fall of 2008 - would cost.
"I don't want to put out a preliminary number," Kaine, a Democrat, said after his presentation at the Bristol Public Library. "Some folks asked me ‘Hey during the (gubernatorial) campaign it was estimated this could be $300 million.' During the campaign, we said that if we do a one-size-fits-all program for every child in the state that would be the approximate cost. ... (But) we will find existing revenues to fund this. ... We will roll out the financial details on August 16."
Kaine suggested the cost might be "more modest" if the plan to primarily serve 4-year-old children goes beyond public schools and includes private providers, plus faith-based organizations.
"If we decided the program would be purely a public school program, the first thing we would have to do before we put dollar one into teachers and kids is find an awful lot of money to put into physical space," Kaine said. "I want to spend dollars on teaching and kids. I'm not that interested in spending more dollars on bricks and mortar, (but) we might have to do a little bit of that."
The governor noted the state budget has $2.5 million to fund 10 pilot early childhood education projects around Virginia using some private organizations.
Kaine also pointed out Virginia's constitution "makes it difficult" to send state grants to church-based groups, but does allow for issuing funds to 501 nonprofit groups.
Building up early reading skills is expected to be a key instruction component in the early childhood education program. Kaine said Virginia's third-grade reading scores are a key measure of how students will perform in the next 10 years.
"Twenty percent fail the exam," Kaine said. "There's about 100,000 third-graders in Virginia, and 20,000 are already failing. When a child fails the third-grade reading exam, there's a pretty good chance they are going to fail the social studies, math and science exams too because reading is such a basic building block skill. ... If they pass it, they are likely to be on the right track."
Virginia has had a statewide preschool program for the past 10 years that serves a relatively small percentage of students. Expanding the program, said Kaine, will have an economic benefit.
"Ten thousand kids in kindergarten through third grade repeat a grade every year," he explained. "At an average cost of $7,000 to $8,000 a year, we're spending $70 million to $80 million a year just to help kindergarten through third-grade kids repeat a grade. ... The basic rule of this program is that no child should be denied access to high-quality preschool because of family income or geography. Investments in education are the most powerful things we can do to help our young people be successful, but also on the broader scale help our state be successful."