The most important investment

Early childhood education has become the hot topic in Maryland's governor's race. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat, made his first policy proposal of the campaign today with a call for universal pre-k for 4-year-olds. His announcement came a week after fellow Democrat Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler made his own pitch for expanding pre-k instruction as a means to reduce the state's achievement gap among students later in their academic careers. Del. Heather Mizeur, another Democrat, is working on her own proposal. Among the Republicans, Del. Ron George and businessman Charles Lollar have both expressed interest in making pre-k more available to low income families. Interestingly, Republican Harford County Executive David Craig, a former educator, is the only major candidate not to make an expansion of early childhood education part of his platform.

The reason for all the interest is that high-quality early childhood education works. Kids who attend pre-k are better prepared to start kindergarten, and they do better throughout their academic careers. Part of the Thornton education legislation of 2002 required Maryland's school districts to provide half-day pre-k for 4-year-olds in disadvantaged families, which the state defines as those earning less than 185 percent of the poverty line. About 29,000 are now enrolled. But that leaves out many families who still can't afford the cost of a high-quality private program, and the half-day schedule can pose difficulties for working parents.

Mr. Gansler, who plans to give more details of his plans on Thursday, is calling for expanding the existing program to a full day and providing additional support services for parents and children in low-income families. Mr. Brown provided a detailed proposal today, calling for making pre-k universally available regardless of income and gradually expanding the availability of fully-day programs. He also calls for modest capital investments to help accommodate the new students and for scholarship funds to encourage more people to become certified in early childhood education.

Mr. George would seek to make pre-k more available low-income families, though he stresses that parents, and not the state, should be nurturing young children, and Mr. Lollar would include pre-k in a broader school voucher system.

Ms. Mizeur plans to announce the details of her proposal next week, though what she has said so far suggests that she will have the broadest approach of any of the candidates. She wants full-day pre-k for all 4-year olds and half-day for 3-year olds whose families make up to 300 percent of the poverty line. She is also proposing an expansion of the state's child care subsidy program.

We support the goal of making full-day pre-k available but not required for all 4-year olds. Making the program universal and not means-tested reinforces the idea that pre-k is important for childhood development. But there are challenges posed by such a policy that would need to be carefully thought through. Such an expansion would require significant capital investments in communities where schools are already crowded. And although Maryland already has a strong, developmentally appropriate curriculum in place for pre-k, the state's teacher training schools would need to adjust their early childhood education programs, which now focus on kindergarten through third grade.

Another significant consideration is how the expansion of state-funded pre-k would affect the economics of private nursery schools, home providers and day cares, many of which also provide excellent instruction. Unless the law is carefully considered, it could inadvertently result in reduced availability of good quality care for younger children.

The biggest question, though, is how to pay for it. Both Messrs. Brown and Gansler propose using money from the state's recent gambling expansion to cover the costs, but that is at best a pleasant fiction. The projected revenues from table games and new casinos are already built into the state's budget assumptions in the years ahead. There is no loose money lying around. Ms. Mizeur says she has other ideas for financing her proposal that she will provide next week. Mr. Brown estimates that his plan would cost $138 million a year, which, as he points out, amounts to just 2.23 percent of the state's total education budget. Given the relative value of making an investment early in a child's development rather than later, a good case could be made to simply reallocate existing resources. But we need to have a debate about that rather than just promising that the magic of gambling will take care of everything.

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