Odds are, there's no better bet Maryland can make than funding high-quality public pre-kindergarten programs. It's a winning hand for the state because pre-K has been shown to pay for itself many times over in the form of higher tax revenues, reduced social service costs and lower rates of incarceration.
Yet, it's unclear how many takers there will be for a proposal to fund expanded access to public pre-K by legalizing table games at Maryland's slots sites. The idea is included in a package of bills expected to be taken up by the General Assembly this year that would give every child in the state access to high-quality, public pre-K programs. But because the bill's funding depends not only on gambling revenues that have yet to materialize but on creating an entirely new revenue stream before the biggest sites are even up and running, lawmakers need to weigh it carefully before taking the plunge.
There's no doubt the state's schoolchildren would benefit from universal access to public pre-K programs. Kids who attend pre-K do better throughout their school careers, earn higher incomes as adults and are less likely to drop out, be unemployed or commit crimes. Studies have shown they enter school significantly more prepared to learn, while those who start out behind often spend the rest of their classroom years trying to catch up.
Currently, however, Maryland schools offer free, half-day pre-K only to families with incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line. While some can afford the $300 to $500 monthly fees charged by many excellent private preschool programs, the state's policy leaves many working- and middle-class families with relatively few options. As a result, only about a third of the state's approximately 75,000 4-year-olds are presently enrolled in high-quality pre-kindergarten.
Bills proposed by state Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, both Democrats, would eliminate the doughnut hole into which working- and middle-class families fall by expanding access to quality pre-K programs to all Maryland families with 4-year-olds. (Mr. Ferguson's bill pays for itself through the legalization of table games; Mr. Rosenberg's version does not name a funding source.) The bills would provide full-day pre-K for low-income students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals under federal anti-poverty guidelines, and half-day pre-K to everyone else. By giving all students the opportunity to benefit from highly enriched academic pre-K programs, the measures would begin to close the achievement gap between the state's most affluent and its poorest students.
Last year, Maryland won a $50 million federal grant to boost the quality of early childhood education programs that serve low-income children. That followed a bill adopted by the legislature in 2009 that directed the state education department to plan a gradual expansion of pre-K eligibility that eventually would include every child in the state. That should be a top priority for Maryland's schools; research clearly indicates that investments in early childhood education have much greater impact than efforts to help older students who have already fallen behind.
Philosophically, we do not object to the eventual legalization of table games in Maryland. There is little difference between gambling at blackjack and gambling at slots — other than the fact that table games tend to attract wealthier customers and generate more jobs. Slots parlors in neighboring states have been transformed into full casinos, and it's likely that Maryland will follow suit. But now is not the time. Our slots program is still not fully operational, and the state needs a chance to evaluate the efficacy of our current gambling program before we expand it. In the meantime, however, the state would do better to continue gradually expanding access to free public pre-K through more reliable means rather than counting on the still-uncertain revenue from legalized table games to be the magic bullet that funds it.