School & District Management

N.J. and Va. Governors-Elect Turn to Preschool Promises

By Christina A. Samuels — November 15, 2005 4 min read
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Timothy M. Kaine, the newly elected governor of Virginia, told a crowd of supporters during his election-night acceptance speech that one of his first plans is to carry out his campaign promise to start a universal prekindergarten program.

“We’re going to keep working to give every Virginia child a world-class education, and we’re going to start sooner, by offering prekindergarten to every Virginia four year old,” said Mr. Kaine, a Democrat who is currently the lieutenant governor.

Mr. Kaine, 47, has just one four-year term to get the proposal through the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. Virginia does not allow its governors to seek a second consecutive term.

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N.J. and Va. Governors-Elect turn to Preschool Promises

In the waning days of the campaign, polls showed Mr. Kaine and his Republican opponent, Jerry W. Kilgore, a former state attorney general, running neck and neck. (“Virginia Gubernatorial Hopefuls Differ on School Policy,” October 19, 2005.)

Mr. Kaine, however, scored a clear victory Nov. 8 in the Republican-leaning state, earning 52 percent of the vote to Mr. Kilgore’s 46 percent. H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator who ran as an Independent, garnered 2 percent.

In the only other gubernatorial race this year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon S. Corzine won the New Jersey governorship with 53 percent of the vote, defeating the Republican, Douglas R. Forrester, who got 44 percent.

The race between the two multimillionaires focused more on lowering New Jersey’s high property taxes and combating the state’s legendary political corruption than on education. But Mr. Corzine did call for universally available full-day kindergarten, expanded after-school and prekindergarten offerings, and more-rigorous high school curricula.

Ambitious Agenda

In Virginia, Gov.-elect Kaine’s prekindergarten initiative, which he calls Start Strong, comes with a hefty price tag: $300 million in its first year. He says that would pay for about 80,000 children, which represents about 80 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds and is the highest number he believes would take advantage of such a program. The state already has some smaller programs for preschool-age children.

“This is something I’m a big believer in,” Mr. Kaine said in an interview before the election. “I have three kids in public schools, one of whom went through the state’s pre-K program and two of whom did not. I can really tell the difference among them when they got to kindergarten in terms of them being ready to go.”

Early-childhood educators said Mr. Kaine’s initiative, the centerpiece of his education plans for the state, is a worthy goal—and an ambitious one.

The Virginia legislature has not been known as a big supporter of early-childhood education, as legislatures in some other states have been, said Toni Cacace-Beshears, the chief executive officer of the Portsmouth, Va.-based Places and Programs for Children, which runs four child-care centers.

Ms. Cacace-Beshears, who is a past president of the Virginia Association for Early Childhood Education, said that a high-quality state program must come with high standards, and has to be careful not to put private preschool providers out of business. Her centers could not exist by offering only infant and toddler programs, she said.

Mr. Kaine added in the pre-election interview that he planned, if elected, to form a committee to examine methods of implementing the preschool program. The program could include public and private providers, he said.

The goal is a good one, Ms. Cacace-Beshears said, and there are other states with strong programs that Virginia can use as models.

Gov.-elect Kaine’s mention of the prekindergarten initiative in his victory speech was “very exciting,” said Edyth J. Wheeler, a Virginia resident who is the current president of the state’s early-childhood-education association. “This is an extremely valuable effort on behalf of young children,” she said.

Ready to Pay?

Ms. Wheeler, who is an associate professor of early-childhood education at Towson University in Towson, Md., added that the initiative “does need to be developed appropriately.”

“It’s not like, let’s make kindergarten look like first grade, and make preschool look like kindergarten,” she said. “It shouldn’t just be a four-year-old reading program.”

She recalled that in the 1980s, Virginia debated another statewide initiative to create universal early-childhood education by 1992. While that push fizzled out in the legislature, Ms. Wheeler said that Virginians still have an interest in such a program.

“People will pay for what they think is important,” she said.

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