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Challenging young minds

Global ExpansionBarack ObamaState of the Union Address

Scientists have long known that the human mind develops most rapidly during the first five years of life, a point President Barack Obama underscored in his State of the Union address when he urged states to provide universal access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs. Investment in early childhood education is an investment in the nation's future, and Maryland is well-positioned to heed the president's call.

Children who attend high-quality, public pre-K arrive at school better equipped with the cognitive and social skills needed for learning, and there is a large body of evidence suggesting that they retain that advantage throughout their school careers and beyond. Currently, nearly 29,000 of Maryland's approximately 73,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality, public pre-K programs, with another 10,000 or so attending comparable private nursery schools and day-care centers. But too many kids still don't have access to the kinds of experiences that challenge their minds and prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

During the last decade, Maryland has greatly expanded access to public pre-K while raising standards of care. It introduced the nation's first system for holding pre-K programs accountable and consolidated early learning initiatives in a single agency, the state Department of Education, which spearheaded the creation of public-private partnerships between schools in poor neighborhoods and community-based early learning centers and service providers.

In late 2011, the state won an early learning challenge grant funded through the federal Race to the Top competition aimed at encouraging local jurisdictions to come up with innovative approaches to increase the quality of instructional programs for students, provide additional training for caregivers and narrow the student achievement gap along racial and class lines. Maryland used that money for a variety of purposes, including the creation of local early learning councils that bring together stakeholders to focus on school readiness.

Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, both Baltimore Democrats, are proposing to take that a step further. They have proposed legislation this year that would set up something of a state-level "Race to the Top" in which local jurisdictions could compete for grants to help create more high-quality preschool services, additional partnerships between pre-K programs and health and social service agencies and expanded professional development opportunities for caregivers by tailoring initiatives to local needs. The bill would require the governor to allocate at least $10 million a year for the program from the state's casino gambling-supported education trust fund. Essentially, the Race to the Top grant helped the state set up the framework for expanded, high-quality pre-K; the Ferguson-Rosenberg bill — known as "Race to the Tots" — would help those programs get off the ground.

We know what works. In 2001, only about 40 percent of Maryland 4-year-olds entering kindergarten had the skills needed for success in elementary school. Since then, the state's efforts have steadily raised standards and staff training efforts to the point where, today, more than 80 percent of children who attend public pre-K arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. The achievement gap has narrowed, and each successive cohort of kindergarten students has arrived in class better prepared to succeed than its predecessors.

But Maryland can't entirely eliminate the achievement gap until it eliminates the school readiness gap. That's why expanded access to high-quality pre-K programs is essential if Maryland is to create the highly educated work force it will need to compete successfully in a global marketplace. Children who enter the elementary grades without the skills they need will always find it difficult to catch up. The school readiness gap is the precursor of the achievement gaps that develop later, and the key to closing it is high-quality instruction that begins before children enter kindergarten.

The legislation proposed by Delegate Rosenberg and Senator Ferguson would build on the progress Maryland already has made, and it would pay big dividends down the road. President Obama cited research showing that every dollar states invest in high-quality early childhood learning programs returns $7 to $10 to their coffers in the form of higher tax revenues and lower social welfare costs.

Maryland has a chance to make difference in the lives of thousands of students whose prospects would be improved by wider access to high-quality pre-K. But the enormous benefits offered by such programs can only be realized if the state chooses to fund them.

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