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While the county government and school system both prepare to tighten their wallets, both still hope to expand their investments in early childhood education.

As budget discussions ramp up, so has tension between school and county officials. But the two sides are presenting a united front when it comes to supporting pre-K initiatives.

With schools facing pressure from a large budget deficit, county and school officials plan to focus on a mixed-delivery approach to early childhood education. They want to focus efforts not only on increasing spaces in programs run by the county but also in increasing the quality of community and home-based child care.

“It’s not only about money,” said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill District). “It’s about the quality we bring to the table. We don’t need to go out and buy everything we need, but we need to recognize how to make the most of what we have.”

In 2012, 16 percent of kindergarteners in the county, more than 2,000 students, did not meet the reading benchmark for their grade level.

At the same time, one of the county’s main pre-K programs, Head Start, had a waiting list of more than 800 children. The program, funded by a mix of federal, state and county money, helps children of low-income families prepare for kindergarten and get access to early childhood education. It currently serves more than 1,500 students, but the demand far outstrips the available spots.

The county wants to address that need by ensuring quality of early childhood education at all levels, including in community- and home-based child care environments. Possible efforts being considered include increasing opportunities for on-site coaching for these child care providers and encouraging expanded participation in a state curriculum assessment system.

With increasing numbers of students entering kindergarten from low-income families, Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee District) said the county cannot afford to not spend money on pre-K programs.

“From an investment standpoint, it’s far cheaper to address pre-K than to try to bridge that gap later,” said Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee District). “Pre-K more than pays for itself.”

This focus on community- and home-based education initiatives is intended to go hand-in-hand with the school system, which takes the lead in early childhood education in the county. However, while the school system represents more than half of the county’s total budget, it currently faces a projected shortfall of $98.3 million for next year’s budget. That deficit already includes an expected increase of $34.3 million in county funding.

Yet while some county supervisors have expressed concern that the School Board is exaggerating its budget predicament, the Board of Supervisors agreed on Tuesday to push state lawmakers for more school funding. The board voted to direct the county’s legislative staff to lobby for more funding for early childhood education programs.

“In a tough budget time, you introduce programs that will save you money down the line,” McKay said. “Now is definitely one of those times.”

The school system too is making its pre-K programs a priority. While it is searching for cuts to close its budget gap, funding for preschool was not on the chopping block in the most recent list of cuts being considered.

“Even facing difficult budget circumstances, this isn’t something we can back away from,” said School Board member Ted Velkoff (At-large). “We should be putting more here over time, not less.”