How Preschool Works in Virginia

Takeaway: Virginia has a four-tiered licensing system for center-based and home-based preschools. The state’s database of preschools provides in-depth information about inspection and violation histories, among other data points. The state provides public pre-K offerings that serve just under one-fifth of 4-year-olds.


Virginia has complex licensing standards. Like many other states, Virginia has two types of programs — center-based and home-based. Within those divisions, however, there are four different forms of licensure. The first type consists of licensed programs. These are inspected regularly; require center staff to undergo background checks and personnel training; and mandate adherence to specific health and safety regulations. The second type is unlicensed but regulated programs. These types of programs voluntarily register themselves and are subject to inspection prior to approval, plus once every two years thereafter. They must also comply with health and safety standards. Third are approved programs, which are regulated by agencies other than the Department of Social Services, typically by city programs in places like Arlington and Fairfax. Finally, unlicensed and unregulated programs are license-exempt and face no requirements or regulations. Virginia’s database search can be filtered by name, location, and license type (or license-exempt type). Results then provide contact information, business hours, child capacity, and a detailed history of inspection dates, complaints, and violations.

For public pre-K, the state administers a program called the Virginia Preschools Initiative for at-risk 4-year-olds who are not served by Head Start. (VPI has been in operation since 1995.) During the 2013–2014 school year, VPI served 18,021 4-year-olds; 88 percent of the state’s school districts operate VPI classrooms. Funding allocations to local school divisions are based on the number of students eligible for free lunch, but criteria for student eligibility are based on locally determined risk factors including, but not limited to: poverty, family unemployment, limited English proficiency, homelessness, parent with limited education, and parent incarceration. VPI programs may provide services on either a part- or school-day schedule throughout the school year.

Center-Based Care

Child day centers serve two or more children under age 13 in any setting that is neither the home of the provider nor that of an enrolled child, or in any facility in which 13 or more children are cared for. All licensed programs are required to meet the State Board of Social Services standards, which are enforced via regular (at least twice yearly) inspections as well as the investigation of complaints.

Caregiver-to-child ratios in licensed center-based programs vary by child age. For children ages 0 to 16 months, the required ratio is 1:4. For children ages 16 months to 2 years, the required ratio is 1:5. For 2-year-olds, the required ratio is 1:8. For children ages 3 to the age of eligibility for public school (5 years old by September 30), the required ratio is 1:10. There are some key notes and exceptions, however. For mixed-age groups, the required ratio is 1:14, provided that substitute staff at a ratio of 1:12 are enlisted in the event of the program leader’s extended absence. In addition, centers must have auxiliary personnel sufficient to maintain a 1:10 ratio for 3-year-olds, in the event of an emergency. The program leader is also required to have undergone at least eight hours of training in classroom management of balanced mixed-age groups. Finally, should a center opt to assign a child to a classroom of a different age group that better matches the child’s developmental level, then the required caregiver-to-child ratio for the established age group prevails in that instance.

Home-Based Care

Family day home, as home-based care is called, serves six to 12 children (beyond the provider’s own children as well as any other children who reside in the home where the care takes place). When care is provided to more than four children under age 2 — in this case, including the provider’s own children as well as those who live in the residence — licensure or voluntary registration is required. As with center-based care, the required caregiver-to-child ratios depend on the number, ages, and needs of the children being cared for. That said, the minimum requirement is for one adult for every eight children. The state counts infants under age 2 as two children in determining the appropriate caregiver-to-child ratios. Homes in the family day home system are inspected quarterly, and two visits are required to be unannounced. In addition, inspectors are entitled to make unannounced visits anytime.

Unlicensed Care

There are two forms of unlicensed care: unlicensed regulated care and unlicensed unregulated care. Unlicensed regulated care includes voluntarily-registered family day homes, which are inspected prior to approval and subject to background checks, health and safety standards, and regular inspections. Religiously-exempt programs and certified preschools are also considered unlicensed regulated, but are only required to self-certify for personnel, health, and safety standards. Unlicensed unregulated programs, which include single-skill classes, infrequent programs, and local government programs, have no requirements, are not subject to background checks, training programs, or health/safety inspections, and are permitted to operate as license-exempt. It is illegal for a facility to be unlicensed if it does not meet the criteria for exemption.

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