Your View: On education investment, Kerry Donley is the best mayoral option

Your View: On education investment, Kerry Donley is the best mayoral option
Vice Mayor Kerry Donley

By Sissy Walker and Carol Keller, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
In a few weeks, Alexandrians will have the opportunity to vote in an open primary election for mayor, to voice their perspectives on where the city is headed, on our priorities, our values and our hopes for the future. We have been reflecting on what each of our substantive candidates would bring to that future for some time, and as early childhood colleagues who have raised our own children in the city, one issue has come to define our highest priority for Alexandria: investment in high-quality early childhood education programs.

We are neighbors in the West End, where the majority of Alexandria residents also live. According to a study by the Bruhn-Morris Family Foundation for ACT for Alexandria and Alexandria City Public Schools, more than 50 percent of the 11,000 children under 5 years old in Alexandria live in the West End. In fact, the number of children under 5 grew 25 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010, with most of that growth coming on our side of Alexandria. Our schools are bursting at the seams, we have fewer play areas for children and there are fewer early childhood programs than in the rest of the city. This presents both a huge opportunity and an equally huge challenge for our city and the next mayor.

Almost all of the above children will enter our public school system. Yet each year between 300 and 400 children across the city start kindergarten having had little or no exposure to high-quality early childhood educational programs or enriched experiences that build knowledge, skills, habits of mind, vocabulary and overall readiness for schooling. They are already significantly behind their more fortunate peers when they walk into the school building.

One in three kindergartners qualifies for English as a Second Language support, and about 10 to 12 percent of them will qualify for special education services at some point during the first year or two of school. This creates a need to expend costly resources over many years at the elementary and higher educational levels. In contrast, investment in high quality early childhood education can transform the playing field of opportunity for all our young children.

The ripple effects of lack of access to high-quality programming extend beyond the individual children involved. Successful students reflect educational institutions, which affects how local taxpayers and the larger public view the reputation of our schools, as school quality is one factor in business location decisions. Our ability to develop our future workforce, to nurture citizenship to engage with democratic institutions, or be involved in civic life, are all compromised when we do not make this one of our top community priorities.

All of our candidates support investment in high-quality early childhood education. But we have been struck by how clearly Kerry Donley expresses his priorities for education: to restore funding for early childhood education to previous levels or better; to whittle down waiting lists while supporting continuous quality improvement in early childhood educational programs; and to explore collaborations between ACPS, nonprofits and our community preschools to dedicate more classrooms and highly qualified and well paid teachers in an effort to close this opportunity gap. Businesses can also play a substantive role in this effort.

How do we get there? Currently, our residential real estate taxes carry much of the burden for budget funding. By growing and diversifying our tax base through expeditious, smart growth, especially near Metro stations and easily accessible mass transit, we can change that. As a West End resident who has raised his family of five daughters in our neighborhood, Kerry Donley cares deeply about making sure that our side of town can both contribute more robustly to a diverse economy, and provide needed amenities, services and cultural assets to the entire city.

We believe Donley will bring Alexandria both a clear vision for our city and establish disciplined priorities to create a sustainable path of continuous economic vitality city while also maintaining the primacy of our educational investment and results. And one more thing:
Kerry listens. We hope he will have your vote on June 9.