Boosted by its federal Preschool Development Birth to Five Grant (PDG B-5), the State of Virginia has been moving toward a unified birth to five system. In response to Governor Northam’s 2019 directive, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) will become a unified early childhood system by July 1, 2021.
While currently in the process of a massive policy and process overhaul, Erin Carroll, director of early childhood and Becca Ullrich, coordinator for early childhood policy and planning at VDOE, believe the timing is right to take full advantage of new federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provisions for child care providers and schools to support the state’s goals for children and families. In an interview conducted early last month, they shared some thoughts about the state’s approach.
Q: What are some of your early thoughts about how Virginia might use the various strands of federal funding available to strengthen your birth to five system?
A: “We’re trying to balance forward planning with a genuine desire for getting lots of input from stakeholders. We’re fortunate to have a PDG-funded needs assessment and strategic plan as our blueprint for a statewide, mixed-delivery system that will provide high quality child care and early learning from birth through age five. We know that our child care programs need help right now, and we also want to make investments in the early childhood system that set us up for long-term, sustainable change. And while it’s not always easy, we’re trying to resist the idea that we can’t make big changes with one-time funding.
We’re looking at the ARPA and other relief funds as opportunities to help existing initiatives and goals. For example, through our PDG grant, we piloted an educator incentive program ($1,500, including home-based providers), which was then expanded with state funds. Then, we used the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funding to further enhance that program with a ‘COVID bonus.’ We know it’s not as comprehensive as it needs to be, but we believe it is an important start to address the inequities in compensation parity among early childhood teachers.
It’s clear to us, because we heard directly from providers, that making cash grants to child care programs in the first rounds of relief funding helped sustain our system. We’re working on the formula and schedule for the next round of grants to ensure providers know what to expect and when so they can make strategic investments in their staff and programs. We also want to ensure that the formula directs higher levels of support to providers that are serving our families with lower incomes and families from historically marginalized communities, as well as providers that are more economically vulnerable themselves.”
Q: What strategies have worked well in engaging stakeholders to determine priorities in your state?
A: “We’re committed to maintaining an open flow of communication with stakeholders, which has been so crucial to us this past year as we’ve administered relief funds. We’ve been working with partners around a series of listening sessions across the state, and have been wowed by the insights of participants. We’re not just hearing “here’s what I need now,” but a lot of great thinking into the future—what we need to do to make a sustainable, workable system in the long term.
One big takeaway from our listening sessions is that finding and retaining staff is an immense challenge for programs. We’re thinking about how we could address compensation in the rate structure and how we could use contracts for child care.”
Q: What dilemmas are you facing in planning for the use of the federal funds?
A: “Enrollment is down in all settings across Virginia—centers, homes, Head Start and the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI). We are working to make sure that parents know what’s available and to understand concerns. While virtual services can provide some engagement and learning opportunities, they are not a replacement for an in-person experience. We’re continuing to think about what can make parents feel comfortable, and providers feel good about the level of health and safety guidance.
Throughout the past year, we’ve made a number of policy changes to encourage participation across birth to five programs, including expanding child care eligibility, waiving parent co-payments and waiving absence days. Over the last two years, we’ve made a number of changes to our preschool program: Incentives to partner with community-based providers, flexibility to move slots across administrative divisions and a pilot for three-year-olds. Recently, we received approval for a waiver that allows five-year-olds to enroll in VPI and we’re extending the enrollment period. In short, we’re being flexible and making small, but substantive changes.
We’re approaching the investments cautiously in terms of supporting one-time initiatives, because we need to consider the impacts (if any) on long-term sustainability. As an example, we’re launching an early childhood mental health consultation model, starting in one region with the hope of statewide implementation. We’re putting time, energy and resources into data and evaluation so we can understand the impact. We’ll be writing a legislative brief in the fall to make a case for a more sustainable investment. We’re really trying to be thoughtful about the end goal for each “one time” type of quality investment.”
Q: What do you need to support your efforts (e.g., capacity within my state, advice from national experts, peer support, etc.)?
A: “Learning what other states are doing is really helpful and prompts our thinking. We really appreciate opportunities for facilitated peer-to-peer conversations around specific initiatives. Contracted seats is a recent example. We appreciate learning about trends and knowing who is doing something that is working well.
We’ve got an incredible team in Virginia, but we still worry about our capacity. The amount of money coming to us is unprecedented, and operationalizing is a very big job. We’re thinking about all the tactical pieces of administration and monitoring. VDOE has assembled a team at the Office of Pandemic Relief to handle the funds, which is going to be a big help to us.”