Lloyd Jackson: The true state of preschool in West Virginia

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By Lloyd Jackson 
For The Charleston Gazette

The article of July 22 “West Virginia ranked low for preschool access,” relies on rankings by the Kids Count Data Center that fail to recognize all the facts about early childhood education in West Virginia. It is incredibly unfair to all those hard-working people who built our pre-K program to cite rankings in a way that implies their work has been anything less than a huge success. We owe it to them to convey the whole story and the true state of preschool in West Virginia.

In 2002, West Virginia made a commitment to implement voluntary pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds over a 10-year period, and now that program is in fact one of the highest-rated programs in America. Participation by 4-year-olds ranks West Virginia sixth in the nation.

Thanks to the efforts of Gov. Tomblin and the Legislature in 2013, next year West Virginia will be one of a handful of states that meets all 10 quality standards established by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The collaborative work of many dedicated individuals from agencies like the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Resources and Head Start, not to mention our teachers and aides, has helped build a program that all West Virginians can be proud of.

By state law, West Virginia’s universal pre-K program can enroll very few 3-year-olds, only those with federal individual education plans. This is true for most states, and, according to NIEER, West Virginia outpaces the majority, ranking eighth in the nation for participation of 3-year-olds. Taken together, these participation rates clearly place West Virginia in the top 20 percent of all states when it comes to 3- and 4-year-olds. I realize those statistics conflict with Kids Count, and the apparent discrepancy can be found in the different methodologies used by the two groups. But disputing the Kids Count ratings is not the purpose of this writing. The purpose is to clarify for the reader the tremendous success West Virginia has enjoyed with preschool and to applaud all those who made that possible.

Yes, with the 4-year-old program soundly in place, West Virginia must now move on to address the needs of 3-year-olds and even our younger children. Dawn Miller, in her July 25 column “The case for sending 3-year-olds to school” makes a persuasive case for moving forward. Understanding that need, in May 2013, Gov. Tomblin established his Early Childhood Planning Taskforce and directed it to consider the entire range of issues affecting our youngest children, including voluntary 3-year-old preschool.

For 25 years, beginning with the Caperton administration, West Virginia has patiently and responsibly tackled its toughest challenges. From Workers’ Compensation, to Teachers Retirement, to public employees insurance, to physicians’ malpractice insurance, to honest budgeting, to fiscal solvency and establishment of the rainy-day fund, to a massive school building program, and yes, to the patient establishment of a nationally-ranked 4-year-old pre-K program, just to mention a few, our leaders have taken on our challenges and turned this State around.

We still have a ways to go to be where we want, and that includes providing and funding the programs necessary to meet the needs of our youngest citizens. But we should celebrate our successes, not mask them with misleading statistics, and recognize current efforts to tackle the problems that remain.

I am proud of our successful 4-year-old pre-K program. I am grateful to all those people who made it happen, many of them dedicated legislators, state employees, and teachers and aides who work in our public schools, Head Start programs and child care centers. Most receive far too little praise, and often far too little compensation for their efforts. And I am confident our State will continue its drive to provide the services and programs needed by all our children.

Lloyd Jackson, a former state senator from Lincoln County, is a member of the state Board of Education and the Governor’s Early Childhood Planning Task Force.