A teacher works with students at Peake Childhood Center in Hampton, Virginia. (JW Caterine for the Virginia Mercury)

A teacher works with students at Peake Childhood Center in Hampton, Virginia. (JW Caterine for the Virginia Mercury)

Although almost 157,000 infants and toddlers in Virginia were eligible for publicly funded early childhood care and education services last year, data from the Virginia Department of Education shows over 90% lacked access to them. The same goes for more than half of the state’s approximately 128,000 eligible preschool-age children. 

In an effort to fill those gaps, Virginia and the federal government offer a range of publicly funded programs. Besides the federally funded Head Start and the Virginia Preschool Initiative and Virginia Child Care Subsidy Program, the state has for seven years relied on its public-private Mixed Delivery program to ensure pre-kindergarten-aged children get education and care. 

This story was reported and writen by The Virginia Mercury

But while initiatives like Mixed Delivery routinely receive praise from child care providers, parents and education advocates, state funding for these programs still lags far behind demand.

Virginia’s Mixed Delivery program aims to increase the number of low-income families who can obtain early childhood education and care by granting state funds to private child care providers to cover those families’ expenses. First piloted in 2016, Mixed Delivery saw a surge in investment and enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more parents sought out smaller child care providers in more convenient locations. 

Last year, the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, which runs the program, reported a 40% increase in the number of children served, benefiting 2,142 in total. VECF Vice President of Strategy Karin Bowles said there’s still more room to grow.

“We are doing our best to advocate for increased investment in the Mixed Delivery program, so we can expand it to more families, to more communities across the state,” Bowles said. “We think it’s a really important piece of Virginia’s early childhood system.”

A spring 2023 data snapshot from the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program shows that 41% of the 28,800 pre-kindergarten children assessed still needed “to build skills in Literacy, Mathematics, Self-Regulation, and/or Social Skills” by the end of the 2022-23 school year. Getting children ready for K-12 schooling starts at birth, noted the state’s Birth-Five Learning Guidelines.

For the past year and a half, Jessica Barrett of Russell County in Southwest Virginia has been bringing her 2-year-old to a Bright Beginnings center near her workplace after she discovered that Mixed Delivery funding would cover all day care expenses, as well as breakfast, lunch, and before- and after-school care.

“We’re in a low bracket of income, so this means a lot to me, because I don’t have to worry about the quality of day care or how I’m going to afford it,” Barrett said.

If it weren’t for Mixed Delivery funding, Barrett said she would be unable to get care for her child. 

“I would have to stay at home or bring him to work with me,” she said.

The United Way of Southwest Virginia connects local providers like Bright Beginnings with Mixed Delivery funding and was one of the first recipients of the program’s grants. Vice President of Community Impact Mary Anne Holbrook said those funds meant her region went from serving a few dozen children through the program to having 384 slots at 25 different sites.

“Mixed Delivery really helps us provide resources to providers across our region that support families that can have their students in high-quality care with state-approved curriculum and wraparound supports that they would [usually only] be able to get in the public school,” Holbrook said.

Those support services include screening children for medical needs like vision and hearing aids as well as speech and occupational therapy. 

In addition to serving students, the program also allocates funds for salary increases at private centers. Jennifer Parish, executive director of Peake Childhood Center in Hampton, which started receiving Mixed Delivery funds last year, said that better-paid staff means better-quality care for children.

“Starting July 1, we had a 16% raise,” Parish said. “By no means am I saying that we are compensating them enough yet — we’re not. But it enabled us to at least take a real step forward with compensation.”

Starting this year, Mixed Delivery is also piloting grants for services for infants and toddlers, making it a true birth-to-age-5 program, Bowles said. The vast majority of those served by the program, though, are older than 3 years old. 

Care for those 2 and younger can be some of the most expensive, Parish said, due to the state’s stricter staff-child ratio requirements for that age level. 

“Our legislators need to really look at what this program is doing for families across our state and realize that they need to put more funding into that program so we can get quality services to more families across Virginia,” Parish said.

While the use of public funds for privately provided educational services through school voucher systems and charter schools has been consistently controversial in Virginia and nationwide, Mixed Delivery has enjoyed bipartisan support throughout its history. Bowles said that the noncontroversial nature of the program has to do with the state’s early childhood care and education system always having been a public-private model, similar to that seen in higher education. 

“Both sides of the aisle really recognize that investing in these early years and ensuring that children have access to quality experiences and quality environments in their earliest years is really important to the rest of the education trajectory,” said Bowles.

The similarities to higher education also extend to cost. In almost every region of Virginia, early childhood care and education is more expensive than tuition at a regional four-year college

In December 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed budget included a $20 million increase for Mixed Delivery, and both chambers of the General Assembly initially supported that bump, with the Senate adding $20 more million. However, when a deal was finally reached Aug. 25, that funding had been dropped.

“We are disappointed that that was not in the final package,” Bowles said.

During the last legislative session, the General Assembly also created the Commission on Early Childhood Care and Education, which has been tasked with submitting recommendations to the governor and legislature by Oct. 1 on how to raise the quality of and access to child care statewide.

“All families, whether they’re eligible for public services or whether they’re paying out of pocket, ought to have choices for where to send their child,” Bowles said.