State leaders last week offered a preview of the next round in the upcoming fight over how to best expand early childhood education, a top priority of Gov. Mark Dayton.

It’s a familiar fight for legislators. Citing its high cost, the Legislature last year snubbed Dayton’s proposal for universal preschool, which would be primarily offered through public schools and taught by licensed teachers.

Legislators instead favored funding preschool scholarships aimed at lower-income families, as well as existing preschool programs that vary in availability across school districts.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith told educators and other child advocates gathered Thursday for an annual conference that universal preschool is an opportunity to reach all children, regardless of their family’s income.

“All children of all backgrounds benefit from attending preschool,” said Smith, arguing that existing prekindergarten programs are underfunded and have waiting lists.

“When it comes to preschool, some will say we are better off targeting our scarce dollars to families with low-income children,” Smith said. “The challenge is that poverty is not a static phenomenon. Families move in and out of poverty all the time, but children need access to excellent preschool even as their family’s financial circumstances are changing.”

That’s at odds with plans from legislative leaders who spoke during a panel after Smith, saying their focus will be on further expanding early-learning scholarships, perhaps by raising the amount of those awards.

“We are all in agreement on the importance of early ed,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. “We just need to figure out what we think the best strategy is in terms of government’s role.”

Joining Wiger on the panel were House Education Finance Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie; Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, and state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina.

Franzen, a supporter of early-learning scholarships, touted last year’s infusion of state dollars for early-education programs including Head Start and scholarships, which collectively saw $100 million in new funding.

“That is the best approach we have today to really target our most at-risk families and kids,” she said.

Franzen said she will focus on funding more scholarships to reach a larger number of families. She noted families receiving scholarships find that the maximum award of $7,500 does not cover the full cost of some preschool programs.

Although state education officials raised the amount last summer after reviewing child care provider rates, families are still scrambling to reduce their cost, including sending their children to preschool part-time.

The state survey of providers found that the median annual cost of a Twin Cities child care center is nearly $13,000.

Legislators and Smith said they would also work to change the state’s child-care subsidy for low-income families, saying those funds should be better streamlined.