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State officials welcome federal preschool expansion proposal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is ranked among the best in the nation when it comes to providing families access to preschool, but state officials are welcoming any extra federal support that could come with President Obama's proposal for early education for all children.

Last week, the White House released data outlining what states could expect to receive in federal funding to expand early learning initiatives through the Preschool for All program, which would provide high-quality preschool for all the state's 4 year olds if Congress passes it.

The program focuses on families who make less than 200 percent of the poverty line, but those above the income threshold would also be eligible for services, and the state would receive incentives for covering more families and promoting programs like full-day kindergarten.

West Virginia is estimated to receive $12.2 million in the first year if it participates in the program, which would mean free early education for more than 1,400 low-and moderate-income children. That first-year estimate includes a required state match of $1.2 million.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who pushed to expand pre-school programs and offer full-day instruction by the 2016-2017 school year as part of his education reform bill, said the proposal can only help achieve the state's education goals. About 60 percent of the state's 4-year-olds are already enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs.

"These services are vital to the preparation of our youngest students, and I welcome federal support for these initiatives," Tomblin said last week through a spokesperson. "The new federal funding available for early childhood learning can complement the work of our nationally recognized preschool program. It also may support the efforts by our Early Childhood Taskforce to better coordinate and explore options for birth-to-three learning in West Virginia."

West Virginia is ranked eighth in the nation for dedicating resources to preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. The state is ranked fifth in the U.S. when it comes to offering access to pre-k, with about 16,000 children currently enrolled in preschool classrooms.

The $75 billion measure proposed in Obama's 2014 budget would be funded by a proposed tax increase on tobacco products over the next decade, and in addition to preschool, would focus on infant and toddler development and extended parent support in an attempt to close the country's school readiness gap.

The program would invest in Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant programs to increase child care for newborns through age 3. In West Virginia, more than 3,000 children are currently served by that program.

If passed, the proposal would also expand voluntary home visiting programs that allow nurses, social workers and other professionals to connect families to support for health, development and education for their children.

West Virginia is estimated to receive $6.9 million in the first year if it participates in the Home Visiting program.

States would not be mandated to expand preschool offerings, but would instead be given incentives to do so, like additional resources and funding. The federal government would assume a major share of the program costs in the initial years, with states gradually assuming more responsibility over time.

"Any opportunity to support the governor's vision for early education while enhancing universal pre-k in West Virginia is welcomed," said state Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares. "It is well established that our youngest learners will succeed in being college, career and citizenship-ready if provided access to a high quality early childhood system."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.

 


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