Fairfax County remains far behind neighboring districts in providing preschool for children from low-income families, according to a report released Tuesday.
About 660 children in the county eligible for subsidized pre-kindergarten programs remain on a waiting list, said the report from Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit organization of retired military officers that promotes children’s education and health initiatives.
In its second annual review of pre-K programs for low-income children in the Washington metropolitan area, the group found that Fairfax serves the lowest percentage of eligible students.
While the county can receive state funding for up to 2,587 students, it only has 1,407 spots available, leaving an estimated 46 percent of eligible students unserved, according to the report.
While Fairfax has added 288 additional state-funded pre-K seats since last April’s Mission: Readiness report, the county still lags in relation to D.C. and its surrounding suburbs.
In Arlington County, all state-funded slots are used by students, and in Alexandria, 97 percent of the slots are filled. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are required by Maryland law to serve all low-income children, and Washington, D.C., offers universal pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds.
“Fairfax stands out in sharp contrast to the other jurisdictions that surround our nation’s capital,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip.
Seip and other retired military leaders from Fairfax County came together at a press conference Tuesday at the Fairfax County Government Center to urge county officials to address the gaps in early education.
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) attended the press conference and brought the issue to the attention of the rest of the Board of Supervisors at their meeting later that day.
“When you start getting other people to tell us how we need to do our business, that means that there’s a real, real problem,” Hudgins said. “We’re not making this investment, and that’s a problem.”
Fairfax County’s proposed 2015 budget would add about 50 pre-K spots, but the number of eligible students is also expected to increase.
Through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, the state awards funding to a local district based on the percentage of students eligible for the school system’s free and reduced price meals program. The number of Fairfax County children eligible for the meals program has increased by 36 percent since 2009, and that trend is expected to continue.
The state contributes up to $3,000 per student for pre-K education through VPI, and local districts must match the state funding.
Seip, who serves on the executive advisory council for Mission: Readiness, said one problem for Fairfax is the higher living expenses in the D.C. area, requiring the county to pay more for staff and facilities compared to its counterparts in other parts of the state.
When the actual cost for a preschool seat exceeds the state funding and the local match, the county must make up the difference. While Fairfax is turning to partnerships with community-based pre-K programs to try to lower the cost of adding new spots, demand still outstrips supply.
Military: Readiness sees early education as a national security issue, said retired Navy Rear Adm. Donald Loren, another member of the organization’s executive advisory council.
Loren noted that 26 percent of Virginia’s high school graduates who seek to enlist in the Army cannot pass the military’s entrance exam, which tests for math and literacy skills. But the push to fund education is about more than future military service.
“We can speak about the military because we’re familiar with that and we have the data,” Loren said. “But there are multiple elements of national security: economic security, diplomatic security, job security. And education of our youth will affect all of these.”