Johnnie Charts Political Career from Delegate Council to California DoE

May 26, 2021 | By Les Poling

Virginia Early (A13) leads a team of dedicated policymakers in the California Department of Education.

Virginia Early (A13) kept busy during her time at St. John’s. There were the hours upon hours spent poring over the Great Books; the evenings immersed in seminar discussion; the afternoons reading and talking with friends in the quad. But Early went even further, plunging into a variety of extracurriculars—particularly the Delegate Council (DC), the St. John’s student government.

“I’d never really seen myself as a budget person,” she says. “But I served two years as secretary of our Delegate Council, and that opportunity really opened my eyes to the power of those kinds of discussions—and also their limitations.”

Early first discovered St. John’s after receiving an admissions brochure with images of the Great Books and the slogan, “the following teachers will return to St. John’s this summer.” Her curiosity was instantly piqued.

“I had some preconceptions of what college would be like—study abroad, being on a swim team, for example,” she recalls. “But the more I thought about it, this model of having the Great Books be the teachers and having these discussion-based classes; it was so appealing to me.”

When Early first arrived in Annapolis, she was interested in everything: she had always had a fascination with politics, but also remembers thinking she could be anything from a historian to a park ranger. However, Early says, her focus narrowed as she read the Great Books and realized that she wanted to put the ideas she was thinking about into practice. That desire materialized during her sophomore year, when she ran for DC with two friends.

Diving into the nitty-gritty of government­—even the government of a small liberal arts college—proved an extraordinarily influential experience. While at St. John’s, partly because of her experience in Delegate Council, she worked as an intern—first on Capitol Hill and then in Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s office—which turned into an unpaid research position that ran through her senior year. Then, upon graduation, she decided to jump straight from St. John’s to secondary education; again, motivated by her love for public service.

In 2013, Early entered the master’s of public administration program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where she studied alongside students fresh out of political science undergraduate programs and seven-year stints in senior roles in the offices of elected officials around the world. It could have been intimidating—Maxwell has one of the most prestigious public policy master’s programs in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report—but instead, she found that the combination of her own experiences and her St. John’s education leveled the playing field. The master’s program, she says, was exactly what she needed.

“I sometimes explain [Maxwell] to people as boot camp for informed public service,” she says. “It wasn’t just about the technicalities of a public budget—although that was the first class. We had classes on public organization and management and all sorts of things. It was a really positive experience for me.”

Early now uses such skills as an administrator in the Early Learning and Care Division (ELCD) of the California Department of Education. She leads a team of dedicated policymakers—including analysts, former preschool directors, and more—in analyzing and providing recommendations on various bills and the state budget each year; creating guidance documents and writing regulations; conducting program implementation; organizing and evaluating early childhood education data; connecting different data sets across systems to inform policy decisions; and much more.

To put it more simply: Each year, the state of California invests billions of dollars in subsidized early childcare and pre-K education for at-risk children and children from families earning less than 85 percent of the state median income. The subsidized early care and education comes in two forms. In one, the state contracts directly with childcare and preschool providers to serve children who qualify. In the other, the state contracts with local administrative bodies who take over the process: determining eligibility for families, referring families to local childcare and preschool services, and using state funding to pay providers. Either way, the state is responsible for making sure the system works.

That’s where the ELCD comes into play, whether providing technical assistance and training to local administrators, reviewing preschool programs to make sure California kids are benefiting developmentally, or analyzing bills and making policy recommendations to the legislature and governor’s office.

“When it comes to implementing programs or figuring out the best policy direction, there are a lot of questions that we have to ask,” Early explains. “How can we improve equity for California’s children, for example? What are ways we can tweak a program, within our legislative authority, that will result in better outcomes for children? The fun thing about working at the DoE is, when we figure out the answers to those questions, we can just do it. Or we can work with the legislature to convince them that they should change the law.”

Early relishes the chance to dive into the behind-the-scenes work that helps Californians. In the last year, the role has taken on even more urgency, as the state rushed to allocate funds in the midst of a pandemic that shut down schools, childcare facilities, and—for many families—sources of income. Of course, such high stakes can make the job extraordinarily stressful, and as a team leader, Early rarely works a less-than-12-hour day. But overall, she says, “the ability we have to actually make things better is amazing. We’re always thinking about what we can be doing better for California children and families.”

In considering Early’s resume, there seems to be a direct connection between her internships, her graduate degree, and her current work. However, while that may be true, Early suggests that the rest of her St. John’s experience—around the seminar table, in conversation, dissecting the pages of the Program texts—has proved just as valuable. From the ability to think critically about unfamiliar material to the constant instinct to ask probing questions, she contends, her St. John’s education has helped her, particularly as a leader.

“In conversation, some people think they need to be designated as a facilitator,” Early muses. “And if they’re the facilitator, then they say, ‘Okay, everyone, this is what we are doing.’ But at St. John’s, the classes start with an opening question. The tutor asks, ‘What do you think about this?’ And in response, everyone opens their books.”

The conversation evolves, she explains, as different people make their voices heard—the discussion moves in different directions, and (crucially) someone always brings the focus back to the anchor: the text.

“What it’s teaching you is how to be a leader when you’re not the official leader,” Early clarifies. “It’s teaching you how to facilitate when you’re a member of a group, because you’re constantly having to think about the goal of the group. And I think that’s something that is so valuable in the workplace.”