The public wins when Democrats and Republicans are both offering principled solutions to pressing challenges. That’s too rarely been the case when it comes to early childhood education. For a public seeking more accessible, appealing, and affordable options, the political response has disappointed. Democrats have offered expensive, heavily regulated plans to jam more four- and five-year-olds into K–12 school buildings. And Republicans have countered with slightly cheaper, slightly less heavy-handed versions of the same . . . or nothing at all.
For many on the left, the ideal is the approach adopted by former mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City, when he effectively tacked a couple extra grades onto the front end of the NYC Department of Education’s pricey, unionized system. This meant embracing a K–12 calendar, subjecting early childhood programs to union contracts and school closures, moving little kids into big school buildings, and disrupting the existing web of mom-and-pop and church-sponsored offerings.
Similarly, the Biden administration’s $300 billion early childhood plan in its signature Build Back Better proposal was a study in regulation and bureaucratization. Yet, while the Build Back Better model offered plenty of cause for concern, Republicans haven’t offered much of an alternative. They’ve spent far more time critiquing the de Blasio/Biden approach than offering their own.
That’s why last week’s announcement by Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin was so notable. Youngkin has sketched a practical, flexible approach to early childhood, one that shows a distinctly conservative sensibility but seems likely to appeal across the ideological spectrum. Youngkin had to act because his predecessor used $794 million in federal pandemic aid to fund expanded early childhood offerings, and those dollars are about to run out. Virginia officials report that more than 80% of families used private providers—like parochial or home-based care—rather than the state’s public preschool program (which only operates from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on school days). Now, absent new funds, 27,000 children risk losing access to care.
The Youngkin plan features five main components.
It would ensure that families will continue to have their choice of providers, expanding parent’s options by boosting state child care spending to $448 million per annum (a boost of more than $200 million). Those funds would all flow to provide choice-based funding for working, high-needs families, rather than to public school pre-K offerings. It’s a very clear alternative to the de Blasio model.
To facilitate choice, the state would develop and offer early childhood digital wallets to parents with children five or younger. Building off the K–12 digital wallets rolled out this spring as part of Virginia’s tutoring program, the goal would be a one-stop wallet that streamlines paying for programs by combining state funds, municipal subsidies, employer contributions, and philanthropic support.
The state would also create a parental choice “Navigator,” which will provide parents with systematic information on early childhood options. Whether or not parents opt to use the digital wallet, they’ll have access to a marketplace feature which would list and describe all available providers, searchable by zip code, hours of operation, and various other criteria.
The proposal emphasizes the need to cut red tape. For instance, whereas a background check of K–12 teachers travels with them when they change jobs, the same is not currently true in early childhood. The goal would be to simplify clearance by streamlining that process. Youngkin would also seek to roll back the excessive regulations that some localities currently impose on home or community providers above what the state requires—in terms of zoning, credentials, and more. As one Youngkin appointee said, the goal is to “ensure kids are safe” but not have political actors use regulation to stymie private options.
Finally, the plan envisions $25 million in competitive grants to create at least 3,000 new classroom seats by using underutilized space on college campuses. Given that some of Virginia’s two- and four-year colleges have excess space, and many of these institutions are conveniently located in “early childhood deserts,” colleges could retrofit some campus space, turning it over to early childhood providers. Youngkin’s hope is that colleges will embrace this approach as a chance to help address the childcare needs of faculty, staff, and students.
Youngkin is promoting parental choice, cutting red tape, and partnering with private providers, but doing it in a manner that feels more like an exercise in problem-solving than point-scoring. As Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera put it, “One of the governor’s goals here is to create structures and core components that are sustainable for the long term, not just serve as a Band-Aid that requires more and more money.” There are plenty of questions that should and will be asked about Youngkin’s proposal. But it’s heartening to see Republicans get serious about tackling our early childhood challenges.