As a 4-year-old boy bounded to the electronic blackboard at Battle Grove Elementary School in Dundalk, Principal Jennifer Gounaris described the financial and logistic challenges she has overcome to open the pre-K classroom. The result, she said, was worth it.
"These kids are going to kindergarten reading," Gounaris said. "See? They're already telling stories and identifying characters. You can totally see the benefit. … Every kid should have their first experience in school this way."
The three Democrats vying to be governor all have plans to expand such programs, eventually offering publicly funded pre-kindergarten to every Maryland youngster whose parents want it. The proposals have been met with enthusiasm from the party base and in education circles.
But experts say the idea is more complicated and costlier than the candidates suggest. And in the long run, the proposals would almost certainly create new expenses for local jurisdictions that already complain about unfunded mandates from the state.
"Just saying it's a good idea — we all believe that," said former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who once chaired the Senate budget committee. "The devil's in how do you do it," she said, "and how much does it cost?"
The candidates are rolling out their early childhood education ideas before the powerful teacher's union decides Saturday whom to endorse in the race to succeed term-limited Gov. Martin O'Malley.
In the near term, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler proposes to extend to a full day the half-day program now offered to low-income children — a move that for Battle Grove would require Gounaris to find four more classrooms as well as furniture, and hire at least eight more teachers, aides and staffers to supervise the lunch oom.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown wants to put every Maryland youngster whose parents want it into a half-day, publicly funded pre-kindergarten class. That would have a similar effect on Battle Grove.
Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County says she'll announce her expansion proposal this week. A leading Republican candidate, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, says he opposes investing in pre-K when the money is needed to improve the state's K-12 education.
Much research supports investment in pre-kindergarten as a way to give disadvantaged students, in particular, a better start in school. A recent major study concluded that students with good-quality pre-kindergarten had higher high school graduation rates and were less likely to be in special education or to repeat a grade.
Estimates vary widely on the return on the investment of taxpayer dollars, but range from $7 to $16 for every $1 spent by taxpayers.
Maryland already spends about $103 million a year to provide half-day pre-K to about 29,000 students who come from low-income families, who have disabilities or come from families that don't speak English at home, state officials said. The state estimates there is at least one pre-K class in 70 percent of elementary schools; it gives grants to help run Head Start nursery schools, Montessori schools and other private centers.
Some of the program costs, however, are borne by counties. Prince George's County reduced its full-day pre-K program to half-days last school year because it couldn't afford the expense, said Bebe Verdery, education director at the ACLU of Maryland.
The expansion plans floated by the candidates would cost as much as $153 million a year more than the state spends now. Brown and Gansler have suggested paying in the short term by diverting money from the state's lucrative casino program. But their plans don't say how they would pay for all the capital costs of such an expansion, nor how long the state would foot the entire bill for offering universal pre-K.
Some county officials are wary. "I support the concept, but at the end of the day, the county executive needs to run the county," said Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, a Republican. She points out that local jurisdictions have already taken on some teacher pension costs and other expenses from the state. "For us, it's simply unsustainable," she said.
Over the past decade, Anne Arundel spent $107 million – a mix of state and local funds – to build or expand classrooms to meet a state mandate to provide full-day kindergarten for all students and some pre-K, county school officials say.
There are other related costs. "Transportation and after-school child care are our biggest obstacles," said Amy Beal, coordinator of the Judy Center at Hilltop Elementary in Ferndale, a state-funded program.
Expanding access to early childhood education is more costly than expanding other grades, said Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a nonpartisan research organization.
"To get real quality in pre-K you have to spend a little more than K-to-12 education. The younger the kids are, the lower the teacher ratios have to be," he said, adding that quality of the school also is important. "You want kids interacting and playing with each other. That requires individual attention."
Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said he expects other counties to see the pre-K expansion as both an important policy decision and another unfunded mandate from state officials.
"There will be a lot of county officials who are impressed that early childhood education is a worthwhile priority, and at the same time distressed at how you find the resources to get from here to there," he said.
For that reason, Gansler and Brown say that while the long-term goal would be to give every Maryland 4-year-old the ability to start public school a year early, in reality providing pre-K would mean funding a combination of private and public programs.
Gansler said that ideally, "instead of having K through 6, you'd have pre-K through 6. That's not, in the very near term, plausible or possible."
Brown has suggested making half-day programs available to all Maryland 4-year-olds by 2019, a plan he estimates will cost $153 million annually and includes $10 million a year to help with construction costs.
Brown's expansion would be a mix of public and private pre-K providers, said campaign manager Justin Shall. While the idea would be to eventually put full-day pre-K programs in every public school, "That's a solution that will take 20 to 25 years," Shall said.
Details released so far by Mizeur's campaign suggest her plan would go further than the others, granting state-funded pre-K to all Maryland 4-year-olds and to 3-year-olds from disadvantaged families.
Michael J. Martirano, superintendent of St. Mary's County public schools and chair of the Public Superintendents Association of Maryland, backs that approach.
"I'm going to promote universal, all-day pre-K for all young people. That's the ultimate gold-star program," Martirano said.
But, he added, "It's got to come along with the resources. That has an incredible price tag."