Fairfax County is looking for the $1.2 million it would need to expand preschool services to more than 800 children now on a waiting list without throwing the 2014 budget out of balance.
There are 826 children waiting to get into the county's 1,864-seat Head Start program, which provides a host of education and health services to low-income families. But that would cost about $15,000 per child at a time when the county is already considering raising taxes and cutting services to cover a budget shortfall.
"The Head Start program is an integral part of assuring that the county's most vulnerable children enter kindergarten ready to succeed," said Anne-Marie Twohie, director of the county's Office for Children. "The emerging social, language, literacy, math and science skills children have as they enter kindergarten are strong predictors for later school success."
Twohie proposed four strategies, totaling about $1.2 million, for serving the children on the Head Start waiting list. They include extending story time at libraries, expanding the Virginia Preschool Initiative, expanding the Greater Mount Vernon Community Head Start program and funding a community-based early childhood care coordinator.
The task of funding such an expansion, however, could prove difficult. The county is already facing a $169 million budget shortfall, which County Executive Ed Long proposed closing through a combination of agency cuts and a 2-cent property tax hike on residents.
County Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield, said the program is essential because it often reduces Fairfax's long-term costs by ensuring all children are better prepared for their classes. But he acknowledged that funding for an expansion could be hard to find.
"I don't think you're going to be seeing a huge transfer," Herrity said. "If we are going to fund it, I think it should come out of administrative reductions. It also may be for the schools to figure out.
Fairfax County School Board member Elizabeth Schultz, from the Springfield District, said she is "cautiously optimistic" about the expansion but worries about its high cost.
"I was pretty excited initially," Schultz said, "but there has to be some cost savings somewhere."