Left to right, students Noah Zambrana, 5; Eden Eyasu, 5; Daniela Ortiz, 5; and Hilina Amlaku, 4; listen in art class at Campbell Elementary School on Tuesday, Jan. 14. Most of Virginia's state-funded preschool classes go unfilled each year because local school districts don't provide matching funds. Arlington County is an exception. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Prince William County qualified for enough state funding this year to provide pre-kindergarten classes to more than 1,600 children from low-income families. But the county turned down nearly all of that money and instead serves just 72 children in four classrooms.

Manassas Park was eligible for state funding to help 104 children prepare for kindergarten, but its program serves just 36.

Across Virginia, about $23 million designated for preschool was left on the table because localities — citing limited resources, lack of classroom space and politics — did not contribute the required matching funds to take full advantage of the program. As a result, more than 6,000 disadvantaged children missed the opportunity to go to school before kindergarten.

As President Obama advocates a dramatic expansion of publicly funded preschool to address the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families, Virginia and many other states are struggling with low participation in underfunded preschool programs. In New York City, for example, the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, campaigned to expand a preschool program that claimed to be universal but is under-­enrolled because of scarce funding and facilities.

Advocates argue that there are few educational programs that can help boost poor children more than access to quality preschool and that when school districts fail to participate they’re leaving children behind.

A mismatch in Virginia preschool funding

“These kids are the neediest of the needy,” said Pat Victorson, an early childhood educator and advocate in Prince William. “If you don’t serve these children when they are young, that’s a huge lost opportunity.”

In Northern Virginia, Prince William and Manassas Park, which is an independent city surrounded by the county, were not the only districts to turn down funding. Fairfax County, which maintains a wait list of about 660 children for its public pre-kindergarten programs, served just more than half of the 2,587 children the state determined were eligible this year. Loudoun qualified for funding for 544 children but served 287.

The General Assembly created the Virginia Preschool Initiative in 1995, aiming to provide quality preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds who were not being served by the Head Start program. The initiative grew during the next decade, and it now provides state funding, generated through lottery proceeds, for nearly 25,000 children.

Starting in fiscal year 2015, the funding formula will be based on estimates of the number of children in each county who would be eligible to receive free lunches in upcoming kindergarten classes. The program costs $6,000 per student, with local governments expected to pick up as much as half of that amount, depending on their relative affluence.

Approximately 90 percent of the state’s 131 school divisions participate in the program. And many participants — 71 districts — use all of their allocated preschool slots.

The formula is especially tough for Northern Virginia districts, though, because they receive less state funding but pay much more for staffing and facilities. Many educators say that $6,000 is an unrealistically low figure for providing preschool classes.

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which tracks preschool spending, estimates the average per-child cost for a high-quality preschool program in Virginia would be $9,327. That figure reflects the cost of living and certain quality benchmarks, including low classroom size, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, and an assistant.

“You can see why school districts would balk at $6,000,” said W. Steven Barnett, the institute’s director. “The amount of money that the state is offering is too little to do this, so districts that can’t make up the difference just aren’t going to do it.”

In Maryland, per-pupil spending for pre-kindergarten exceeded $8,000 in the 2011-12 school year, according to the institute’s most recent annual report. Since 2007, Maryland localities have been required to offer pre-kindergarten to children from low-income families. Localities cover most of the cost, but the mandate was timed with a large increase in state funding for education.

On Thursday, Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony G. Brown (D) announced a $4.3 million plan to expand pre-kindergarten by raising the income limit for eligibility.

The District also outspent Virginia, providing funding for a universal preschool program that serves the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds at a cost of nearly $15,000 per child, according to the report.

Virginia’s General Assembly is expected to consider budget amendments this year that would increase the preschool allocation, including one that asks for parity with Head Start, at nearly $8,000 per child. Other proposals would reduce the match amount localities must provide or would give localities some of the unused funds to train private or faith-based care providers.

Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) said he is unlikely to support additional funding for a government preschool program, since some studies show that academic advantages from preschool fade over time. He said the most important skills that children need in kindergarten are social and emotional and can be learned in day care or at home, so he supports improving the quality of child-care settings.

In Prince William, where 32 percent of kindergarten students are learning English as a second language and 42 percent are considered economically disadvantaged, county officials turned down $6.1 million in state funding for preschool this year.

School Board member Betty D. Covington (Dumfries), who was an elementary school principal for two decades, said a lot of Prince William students could benefit from more formal preparation for school. She said many schools in the county “would jump at the opportunity” to offer preschool because students are arriving in kindergarten classes with very limited academic or social skills.

She recalled two kindergarten teachers once telling her at the end of their school year: “Now, Mrs. Covington, these children are ready for kindergarten.”

Abubakarr Sesay of Manassas got a second job to pay for a part-time private preschool when his daughters aged out of an Early Head Start program. They were left in an academic void, with no other public programs available.

Sesay, who is from Sierra Leone, said he did not want his daughters to lose ground in the progress they were making learning English and math.

“I think they do much better in a structured environment,” he said.

Head Start serves just 385 4-year-olds in Prince William. But the School Board has rarely discussed expanding preschool options through the state program, mainly because of the cost, Covington said. The district has been strained in recent years by a foreclosure crisis, unrelenting growth, and the state’s largest class sizes.

A 2007 General Assembly-commissioned review of the Virginia Preschool Initiative found positive effects for participants. Students who attended the program performed better on a kindergarten literacy test, with just 11 percent scoring below the benchmark, compared with 17 percent of all kindergartners.

More than 80 percent of principals surveyed for the report felt that preschool “substantially increased” at-risk students’ social and academic abilities.

Fairfax County and Alexandria have found ways to expand the program by partnering with community-based groups, which officials say provide extra space and more flexible options for families.

Arlington is the only Northern Virginia county that has tapped 100 percent of available state funding for preschool. The county offered its first state preschool class in 1996. It now has 34 classrooms serving 542 students, slightly more than the number that the state funds.

“Our school board has supported preschool since before it was cool,” said Kate Graham, coordinator for the county’s early childhood programs.

The district pays far more than the required matching funds, Graham said, because it offers preschool students many of the same arts programs and services that other elementary students receive. It also sets eligibility requirements well beyond the poverty line to allow students to apply from households earning as much as $86,000 for a family of four — a reflection of the high cost of living in the inner suburb.

In one pre-kindergarten classroom at Campbell Elementary, students took a music break after their morning meeting and a literacy lesson one day this week.

They sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” then danced along to the lyrics of a song that directed them to touch their knee or shake their leg or do jumping jacks and then FREEZE! mid-motion and without crashing into any classmates. For them, it was a fun game. But the teacher saw it as a way for the children to improve motor skills and practice self-control, following directions, and respecting personal space — important abilities for school success.

Nearly all — 97 percent — of the kindergarten students last year who graduated from a state-funded preschool program in Arlington met the benchmark on a state literacy test, according to a county report.

The results are fueling interest in continuing to grow the preschool program, Graham said. “We definitely think there are more out there who could be benefitting from it.”