Preschool enrollment in Virginia hovers well below the national rate and even further behind neighboring Washington, D.C., and Maryland, according to a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Across the country, nearly 1.5 million children participated in state-funded pre-kindergarten in 2016 — an all-time high — including 32 percent of all 4-year-olds nationwide, according to the report.

Participation rates were higher in Maryland, where 36 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled. And they were more than double the national rate in the District, where 81 percent of 4-year-olds — as well as 70 percent of 3-year-olds — took part in public preschool programs.

At the same time, just 18 percent of 4-year-olds in Virginia were enrolled in state-funded preschool, a rate that has remained static for the past three years, according to the report released the week of May 22.

Overall, the report ranked Virginia 29th in preschool access on the national report. Maryland ranked 13th, and the District came in first.

Children at the Arlington Child Development Center in Arlington, Va., sing songs with their teather in 2013. State funding for preschool dipped for the first time after a decade of expansion, according to a recent report. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Advocates say low funding from Richmond has hampered efforts to grow the state program. Virginia spent an average $3,740 per child in preschool in the last school year, far below the actual cost of providing a quality program for children, and many local governments have been unwilling to pay the balance, they say.

“We are not investing in the future,” said Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), who represents Baileys Crossroads, where she said many poor and immigrant children start kindergarten without important socialization skills and basic English proficiency. “There is a huge gap at the start of school that makes it difficult for teachers and requires more resources and creates a strain all the way along.”

Research has shown that quality preschool programs offer long-term benefits, including better school performance, improved graduation rates and higher rates of employment and homeownership. The potential payoff is greatest for children from low-earning households.

The General Assembly started the Virginia Preschool Initiative in 1995 to provide quality preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds who were not being served by the federal Head Start program, which provides preschool for about 7 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.

Many children who could benefit most from the program do not have access, advocates say. More than 25,000 children were considered eligible by the state, because they come from households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or meet other criteria that put them at risk for academic failure.

But just over 18,000 of those children were actually enrolled in programs. State funding for more than 7,000 slots went unspent, largely because local government chose not to provide the required matching funds.

Children sing songs and play games at a class for 5-year-olds at the Arlington Child Development Center in Arlington in 2013. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Many of the unused slots are in Northern Virginia, where officials say they have been struggling to keep up in fast-growing communities and do not have the resources or the facilities to add pre-K classrooms. They say the state’s contribution does little to offset the actual costs of providing a quality program.

As a result, Fairfax County served just under two-thirds of the 2,521 children eligible for the state preschool program; Loudoun County served just 28 percent of the 572 who were deemed eligible. And Prince William County provided pre-kindergarten for just 2 percent — or 32 of the 1,609 children eligible in 2016.

Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said the county is still trying to manage crowding in its public schools, which have some of the largest class sizes in the state. The Republican candidate for governor also said he does not support the state-sponsored preschool program on principle.

“In my view, it amounts to taxpayer-funded day care,” he said. “It’s a parent’s responsibility to take care of their own kids during the day until kindergarten.”

Lacking support for any major new investments from the Republican-controlled legislature, Virginia has taken an “incremental” approach to building its preschool program, said Emily Griffey, a senior policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children, a research and advocacy organization.

Right now, Virginia is focusing on building capacity through more public-private partnerships, she said.

In Maryland, localities pay the bulk of the cost for preschool, although a 2007 mandate to provide pre-kindergarten to children from poor families was timed with a large increase in state funding for education. Combined government spending per student in Maryland last year was $7,533, $5,964 in Virginia, and $17,875 in the District.

Virginia and Maryland also received federal funds through a competitive “Preschool Development Grant” program to support high-quality preschool enrollment of 4-year- olds from low-income families.

The Virginia grant provided seats for more than 1,200 additional children in the 2015-2016 school year and also improved program quality in 11 communities it considers “high needs,” including Prince William County, officials said.

The multiyear grant was launched by the Obama administration to fulfill the former president’s call for a dramatic expansion of publicly funded preschool to address the achievement gap between children from varying economic backgrounds.

President Trump has not signaled a similar commitment to preschool, and it’s unclear what will happen after the grant ends in the 2018-2019 school year, advocates say.

Variability in access to public preschool in the Washington region highlights a national problem, where the growth of public preschool programs is exacerbating inequality across state lines, said Steven Barnett, executive director of the Rutgers University institute that published the report.

“We have this big expansion but it’s very uneven. If you live in D.C., or Oklahoma or Wisconsin or Iowa, chances are you can go to a high-quality pre-K program for at least a year,” he said. But if you live in many other states, your chances are not very good, even if you are in poverty,” he said.

In addition to Washington, D.C., three states — Florida, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — ranked at the top, serving more than 70 percent of 4-year-olds. Seven states have no state-funded preschool at all.