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In candidates' proposals for expanded pre-K, details will matter [Editorial]

10:34 AM EDT, October 18, 2013

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Marylanders should be paying attention to what is emerging as a key issue in the governor's race — possible statewide expansion of pre-kindergarten public education. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Douglas Gansler, the front-running Democratic candidates, along with other political hopefuls, are proposing some form of wider pre-K instruction.

It is certainly proven that 5-year-olds with a year of pre-K school under their belt will, on average, perform better in their academic careers than their peers who do not attend.

But this is not a panacea. Some thorny questions emerge. What will it cost and where will the money come from? Will overcrowded schools have the space? Will it be mandatory or optional? Would some 4-year-olds benefit more from being at home than at school?

At present, providing half-day pre-K sessions to children of disadvantaged families has been required in the state's school districts since 2002 after passage of the Thornton education legislation that funded the No Child Left Behind Act. An estimated 29,000 students are currently enrolled.

Differences exist in the various proposals from the candidates. Gansler wants to enhance the existing program by extending it to full day and adding other services for disadvantaged families while Brown wants to gradually expand from half-day to full-day and make it available to all.

Both Brown and Gansler are looking to casino revenue to pay for this. Gansler wants to divert some of the casino revenue that goes to horse racing, but said the scope of the project, and presumably the resulting cost, would come only after extensive studies. Brown has said his plan for universal pre-K would cost up to $153 million a year.

Casino money, however, is not some handy stash ripe for dipping into. It is revenue already incorporated in future state budget projections. Cash for beefing up pre-K means drawing down elsewhere. Also, costs will be unevenly distributed — higher in districts with overcrowded schools because infrastructure costs (more classrooms) will be added as a capital expense.

Optional vs. mandatory? Universal vs. means-tested? We favor a half-day pre-K that is optional and universal. Some parents won't want it and should be free to forgo it. By making it universal, the legislation can acknowledge that there are benefits to families across the board, not just for disadvantaged children.

Maryland has one of the best-educated populations in the nation, but it also has an achievement gap between children of poverty and those who have more advantages. Expanded pre-K has potential to help close that gap, but we need to know more.

Whoever becomes governor should initiate a study that looks at benefits and financial pitfalls to see if it makes sense in Maryland.