Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur rolled out a plan Thursday that would expand pre-kindergarten to 3-year-olds and overhaul the state's income eligibility requirements for child care subsidies.

"I'm proud of our schools for being rated first in the nation," the Montgomery County delegate said to a group gathered at Downtown Baltimore Child Care Inc.

"But the title loses some of its distinction when we take a look at diversity and income achievement gaps. Closing the gaps will be a major priority of my administration, and the only way to truly level the playing field is to start with early childhood education."

Mizeur is calling for expanding preschool from half day to full day, and for it to be made available to all 4-year-olds.

She would also offer pre-K to 3-year-olds whose families make $70,650 or less per year, which would bring about 32,000 additional students into the state's programs. Additionally, she would look to boost funding and support for after-school programs.

Mizeur's plan would cost about $279 million, and she did not offer a funding source.

Her opponents have also offered pre-K plans. In the near term, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler proposes to extend to a full day the half-day program now offered to 4-year-olds from low-income families. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown wants to put every Maryland 4-year-old whose parents want it — regardless of income — into a half-day, publicly funded pre-kindergarten class.

Gansler and Brown would pay for their pre-K plans with casino revenue.

Mizeur's plan would also increase the current eligibility guidelines for state child care subsidies, expanding the number of families who could afford to place their children in early-childhood settings.

"Our current subsidy is reserved for the poorest among us," Mizeur said, adding that the state's income guidelines date to 2001 and do not reflect rising costs. "And the value of the voucher is so diminished that it has no real purchasing power."

Mizeur said her administration would increase household income eligibility from $43,568 for a family of four to $70,650. Eventually that number would rise to $108,915.

"The high cost of child care is devouring a working Maryland family's entire paycheck, or it is preventing all but the wealthiest families from placing their children in a safe and nurturing child care setting," she said.

Margo Sipes, executive director of Downtown Baltimore Child Care, said that while the nonprofit organization does not endorse political candidates, it does support efforts to remove financial barriers for families.

"We are hosting this today because we believe in the importance of this conversation," Sipes said. "Child care is one of the top three expenses for families in the state of Maryland and the second-highest expense for families in Baltimore City."

Early-childhood educators were also on hand to support Mizeur's plan.

Fatima Whitmore, a Baltimore County child care provider, said she believes Mizeur's plan would cut down on frustration with long waiting lists experienced by families. She also said that child care providers need more support.

"The development of early child care is critical," Whitmore said. "It's hard to get those formative years back."

Mizeur said she would build a budget around her top priorities and vowed that her pre-K plan would be funded.

"I think it's a really bad idea to expect low-income and middle-income people to lose at the casinos to fund educational opportunities for children," she said of her opponents' plans.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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