Student Noah Zambrana, 5, listen to the filter sound from a shell during recess or free play in a pre-kindergarten class at Campbell Elementary School on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. Most Virginia's state-funded preschool classes go unfilled each year because local school districts don't provide matching funds. Arlington County is an exception, with a very large publicly funded preschool program. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of Virginia business leaders visited Richmond this week to meet with lawmakers and talk about their priorities for building a more business-friendly state.

And for the first time, their vision included a pitch for more high-quality preschool opportunities.

“Our employees 20 years from now are early childhood students today,” said Barry DuVal, president and chief executive of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

“As a business community, we are viewing this as an economic competitiveness issue because the workforce pipeline has to be prepared and it has to be prepared from an early stage,” he said.

The chamber’s Blueprint Virginia was developed over 18 months with input from 7,000 Virginia business and community leaders. It sets out goals for improving the state’s economic competitiveness over the next eight years.

Improving education and the workforce were the most important goals that emerged during the planning process, and early childhood education stood out as a key area for improvement, DuVal said.

Specifically, the chamber is asking the legislature to improve the access to high-quality early education and to improve the flexibility of how funds are used under the exiting state program, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, so more children can be served. Currently, more than a quarter of the state-funded preschool slots go unused because localities do not provide the required matching funds.

The chamber also recommends expanding public-private partnerships to provide better access to preschool and implementing private sector models such as merit pay in publicly funded child care and preschool programs.

Business coalitions have helped spur the bipartisan development of public preschool programs in many states. In Virginia, many businesses have been advocates for improving early childhood opportunities for at-risk children. But this is the first time that the statewide business group has made it a goal.

“This is great to see the business community as a whole embrace early childhood education,” said Emily Griffey, senior policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children.