The preschoolers squealed as the tiny frog Virginia first lady Pamela Northam had brought to show them jumped from her hand.
“Friends, can you show me your calm bodies so we don’t scare the frog? Can you show me your scientist eyes?” Northam asked.
The children sat still while Northam collected the frog and carried it around to show them, telling them that frogs breathe through their skin and eat nuisance pests.
Then they listened as she read a book about animal noses and led them in a round of applause for their teachers.
“We know immediately, as soon as a kid walks into kindergarten, whether he has had those kinds of experiences in early childhood,” the wife of Gov. Ralph Northam said after the story time was over. “This is where equity begins—in early childhood education—and children who have had these experiences have better outcomes as adults.”
Pamela Northam and Del. Josh Cole, D–28th District, visited Fredericksburg Children’s Academy, a day care and preschool facility in Stafford County, on Wednesday to highlight recent legislation that expands eligibility for child care subsidies to more families.
Northam, a former pediatric occupational therapist and science teacher, has led her husband’s administration’s efforts to increase access to quality early childhood care and education. They include working with the General Assembly to introduce and champion House Bill 2206, which passed this session.
David Cary, Pamela Northam’s chief of staff, said the bill raises the annual income limit for receiving subsidy funds to $60,000 or less for a single parent with one preschool-aged child, and $89,000 or less for a family of four with at least one preschool aged-child.
Previously, the income cutoff was $32,000 per year for a family of two and $49,000 per year for a family of four.
“So eligibility has now nearly doubled,” Cary said.
Families have until July 31 to apply to the subsidy program, which they can do by visiting childcareva.com.
FCA Director Jane McGill said there are 10 families with a total of 22 children enrolled at the facility who receive tuition assistance through Virginia’s subsidy program. She said the expanded eligibility means more families can access FCA’s programs, which begin for infants at 6 weeks of age and continue through elementary school.
Northam said the expanded eligibility will help parents who would not otherwise be able to afford childcare get back to work.
“Child care is the key to recovering from the pandemic,” Northam said.
FCA also participates in Virginia’s preschool development grant program, which was piloted in 2019 and is overseen by Northam’s office. The PDG program, which is funded by a three-year federal grant, is an effort to accelerate Virginia’s development of an equitable early childhood system that delivers stable, affordable and quality early care and education.
One of the program’s core goals is to support early childhood teachers, who are often women of color. These teachers provide an essential service in educating and caring for young children, yet are paid less than K–12 teachers and even many service jobs, McGill said.
“One of the challenges of hiring is that people are seeing signs in McDonald’s for $15-an-hour jobs and we’re not paying that, unfortunately, and the responsibilities of this job are so great,” McGill said. “And we can’t ask parents to pay more.”
Teachers at facilities that are part of the PDG program and work for at least 30 hours per week with children up to age 5 are eligible for a stipend of $1,500, and McGill said the stipend has been helpful for her staff.
Northam said she and her husband’s administration have worked to raise the profile of early childhood educators, beginning by moving oversight of child care and preschool facilities from the Department of Social Services to the Department of Education.
“This workforce needs to be recognized as so much more than babysitters,” she said.
Northam said the pandemic made clear how crucial child care is to a functioning economy.
“I think the nation is much more aware of the need for quality, affordable and accessible child care and early childhood education,” she said.
She said Virginia has been at the forefront of efforts to expand access to everyone who needs it, but more needs to be done. She encouraged those for whom accessing or paying for child care has been a struggle to share their stories with their legislators.
“Early childhood education is the most important investment we can make,” Northam said.