The case for investing in early education

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, February 24, 2016

by Hattie Francis

This past fall, Vanderbilt University released a study addressing the state of Tennessee’s kindergarten readiness program. In the report, Vanderbilt argued that while quality preschool education showed initial gains upon entering kindergarten, most gains vanished by the third grade. Therefore, there seems to be no significant impact.

Clearly, Vanderbilt’s report sparked quite a bit of conversation around the country, including Western Tidewater. It was also announced around the same time that Virginia would receive $17.5 million dollars for preschool programs that target at-risk children. Immediately, references to the Vanderbilt study surfaced. As a reaction to rhetoric developing ignited by Vanderbilt’s study, it is Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater’s responsibility to clear a few things up regarding the success of kindergarten readiness programs.

Virginians should understand that each year $61 million of taxpayer funds are needed for unprepared students who must repeat a grade between kindergarten and third grade. Fortunately for Virginia, over the past year the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation helped to attract $21.1 million in additional funds for high-risk children.

From organizations like the VECF and Smart Beginnings’ efforts to fund kindergarten readiness programs and increase the number of quality preschool programs, the state of Virginia has experienced a decrease in kindergarten repetition from 4.1 percent in the 2005-2006 academic year to 2.6 percent in 2013-2014.

In order for Virginia to continue the trend of lower student retention rates, then it must be acknowledged that kindergarten readiness programs are only the first step toward early educational success. If early childhood investments are to be fruitful, then support must continue once entering kindergarten.

Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater is committed to the first step toward success, developing and maintaining kindergarten readiness programs, in Western Tidewater as we serve as the local coordinator for Virginia Quality, Virginia’s newly updated Quality Improvement and Rating System.

Research shows that for an early education center to be considered quality, it must employee teachers with certificates in early education or advanced degrees, follow research-based curriculum, maintain low student to teacher ratios, and provide family supports, such as parent workshops, transportation, ease of enrollment and tuition support.

The updated Virginia Quality program officially launches this spring and largely addresses each of the aforementioned qualities. Parents in Western Tidewater will be able to research which quality-rated program will best prepare their child for the future. Where the Virginia Quality program does not address certain aspects like the parent workshop, Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater exists to fill the void as needed.

Research proves there is a 7-10 percent return on investment for early education. Individuals who receive high-quality preschool are four times more likely to graduate from a four-year institution and five-percent more likely to hold consistent employment in their late 20’s.

Therefore, do not deem Virginia’s thoughtful and intentional investments in early education as potentially unrewarding. As a state, we are continuing to take steps in the right direction regarding preschool. Virginia, and Western Tidewater, cannot make the mistake of failing to recognize that kindergarten readiness in only a step and not the step necessary for the early success of our youngest citizens.

HATTIE FRANCIS is the executive director of Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater. Contact her at or