Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler suggested Thursday capping the amount of casino cash given to the horse racing industry and spending the rest on early childhood education, an investment Gansler said would be among his most important priorities if he is elected governor.
Gansler, a Democrat, expanded on his idea to offer full-day preschool to disadvantaged children, saying his long-term goal would be to allow every 4-year-old to start public school a year before kindergarten in a state-run pre-K program. In the meantime, low-income youngsters would get all-day schooling in a mix of public and private facilities paid for by $20 million a year raised in Maryland casinos.
"This is no panacea," Gansler said at a forum of researchers he convened at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore to discuss early childhood education and how to begin improving achievement of the state's poorest students. "It certainly, by no means, is the answer to the issue."
Gansler's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, rolled out a similar proposal Tuesday, but Gansler suggested extensive study on implementing universal pre-K before the state embarked on the project. Brown has backed spending as much as $153 million a year to provide half-day pre-K to every Maryland student by 2018.
Both suggested using casino money for their proposals, but Gansler is the first to suggest diverting money from horse racing to education.
Maryland voters approved casinos in 2008 in part to buttress the state's struggling horse racing industry, as well as to pay for education. Gansler proposed capping the amount of money given to the horse racing industry at $50 million a year — roughly the take the industry receives now, before casinos in Baltimore and Prince George's County come online.
"We're trying to get the industry up and running again, and before we've even got back on our feet, it would be devastating," said David G. Richardson, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "People have made a commitment based in the promise of the (casino) money. It'll just cut the legs out from under us."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who endorsed Brown's candidacy in Annapolis on Thursday, said Gansler's proposal could upset hard-won agreements on what it would take to have a competitive thoroughbred racing industry.
"That issue has gone through a long vetting process," Busch said. "It was part of a forged compromise. It was something that went to referendum, and the people of this state had a vote on it."
Expanding early childhood education has emerged as a hot issue in the race for governor in 2014. The third Democrat in the primary contest, Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur, plans to introduce her plan next week.
Gansler also rolled out five other new policy ideas Thursday to help close the achievement gap between wealthy students and those from poorer families: grants to help students from Spanish-speaking families, a state program that tracks students from birth to high school graduation to measure the effectiveness of government programs, a mentorship program for teachers in "high-risk" schools, more after school and summer programs, and a volunteer corps.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.