Research has shown children reaping benefits from full-day kindergarten programs, and it's not a stretch to assume similar benefits could come earlier in childhood, she said.
"Rather than how much time they spend in school, I like to think about what they would be doing with the other half of their day," Early said. "Sometimes school is the best environment for them to be in."
And officials say Tomblin's proposed mandate is mainly a way to reach out to working parents for whom full-day programs are more convenient than the half-day alternative. By making preschool more accessible, officials hope to increase enrollment.
Experts estimate that state preschool programs reach peak enrollment when around 80 percent of the eligible population is enrolled (around 20 percent are bound to end up in private preschool programs, or have parents who don't approve of preschool).
Burch said he and other state officials aspire to that 80 percent benchmark. That could mean that the counties without full-day programs are flooded with additional students in the coming years.
But even if they have to scramble to find space for those extra students, county school districts shouldn't have to scramble for funding. West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that fund preschool programs through the state aid funding formula - meaning the funding burden falls on the state, not local school districts.
And preschool is expensive: the state spent more than $82 million to fund preschool in 2011, or about $5,600 per child. That's well above the national average of $4,296, a fact that has garnered praise for the state from national preschool advocates.
And West Virginia's preschool program has largely escaped the budget crunch reported in many other states, in part because of a bet taken by legislators when they built the program a decade ago.
Lloyd Jackson, a state school board member and former state senator, was one of the authors of the legislation that created the program.
"We understood that funding for these programs is always difficult," Jackson said. "But we can be very deliberative, very upfront, very smart about these programs."
They took a bet based on the trend of declining enrollment in West Virginia's schools - a trend that continues today.
"The idea was to match the decline in student enrollment to the influx of preschool kids," Jackson said, so that the state would pay out a relatively steady stream of funds to the local school districts, even as preschoolers came into the system.
So far, that has played out as expected.
Last year, Jackson said, they were within 200 students of an exact match. Officials hope a continuing decline in enrollment will leave room for the state to continue to fund preschool programs at the same level.
Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.ma...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.