Fairfax County is far behind neighboring jurisdictions in providing subsidized preschool for children from low-income families, according to a report released last week.
Mission: Readiness, a group of retired senior military leaders that promotes investment in education and other services for children, reviewed pre-kindergarten programs in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
About 75 percent of military-age men and women are ineligible to join the military due to factors like insufficient education, a criminal record or a lack of physical fitness, said retired Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, a member of Mission: Readiness.
According to numerous studies, attending a quality preschool program increases the likelihood that children will complete high school, attend college and avoid criminal involvement.
“The results are pretty impressive,” Seip said.
In the D.C. metropolitan area, Fairfax County has the largest proportion of eligible students who are not currently enrolled in a preschool program, according to the report. About 56 percent of the county’s share of state-funded slots in the Virginia Preschool Initiative are currently funded, 1,119 of the 2,545 available slots.
The VPI is designed to serve students who aren’t enrolled in the federal Head Start program. The state provides up to $3,000 per student, which must be matched at the county level.
Fairfax County has more than 800 students on a waiting list for preschool services and is looking at steps to reduce the waiting list as part of this year’s budget process.
“We want to draw attention to the fact that one of the most prosperous counties in the nation isn’t serving all eligible children,” Seip said.
Arlington County is utilizing all of its VPI slots, and the City of Alexandria is using 90 percent but has about 50 children on a waiting list.
Maryland and the District of Columbia have universal eligibility, meaning that they must serve all eligible families who apply for programs. Montgomery and Prince Georges counties appear to be achieving those goals, according to the report, but the District still has waiting lists for some of its programs.
“Most of the counties are doing a great job in this area,” Seip said.
The Fairfax County Office for Children is proposing a $1.2 million expansion of Head Start and VPI programs, which would reduce the waiting list by just over 100 students.
Fairfax County Public Schools is also considering a $3 million investment in preschool services to further reduce the backlog.
It costs about $14,500 to enroll a child in Head Start, according to a presentation the Office for Children gave to the Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) shared the report with her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, and also raised the issue with School Board representatives at the start of budget hearings.
“I am not comfortable being in this region and saying Fairfax County is behind others,” she said.
It will be better for the school system in the long term, she added, if children begin kindergarten prepared.
“800 children entering kindergarten without having had meaningful preschool will be a challenge for you,” Hudgins told School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large) following his budget presentation.
Seip also highlighted the long-term fiscal benefits of quality preschool. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute and The Commonwealth Institute suggested that the benefit of quality early education for Virginia was $2 billion over 17 years, in special education savings, child welfare savings, decreased grade retention, reductions in juvenile crime, reductions in adult crime, increased earnings by parents, and increased tax contributions.
“You’re not going to see the results tomorrow, but down the road you will see savings, he said.