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It's time for statewide full-day, pre-kindergarten

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chair of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, explains the Kirwan Commissions recommendations for Maryland's public schools. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

The good news: The number of Maryland students prepared for kindergarten jumped two percentage points from last year, according to a new state report. The bad news: More than half still don’t have the emotional, behavioral and academic skills to achieve in that first year of school.

No surprise, really, given that kindergarten readiness has stumped school officials for years.

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Baltimore, with its high rates of poverty, fared the worst in the region with just 39 percent of kids who took a readiness test exhibiting the necessary skills. The results ranged wildly in other parts of the region, with Carroll County having the highest percentage with 61 percent of its students prepared. It went downhill from there, with Howard County at 56 percent; Baltimore County, 49 percent; Anne Arundel, 48 percent; and Harford, just 43 percent. That’s right, Harford County is doing only marginally better than Baltimore City, despite having fewer than half the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced price meals, a measure of poverty.

The percentage of children entering kindergarten ready to learn is inching up in Maryland, although still less than half are deemed ready.

This is far from where we should be in educating our kids. The state needs to improve these numbers to ensure children are set up for a successful future. We believe the state could make significant strides by making high-quality pre-kindergarten universal. Maryland currently offers free half-day pre-K just to to 4-year-old students based on income eligibility. That’s clearly not good enough. We need full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds and public pre-K for 3-year-olds who come from disadvantaged families.

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Not many people argue with that idea in theory, but paying for it is another matter. Remember the blowback Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous got for his plan to use taxes from legalized marijuana to pay for it? Gov. Larry Hogan also got grief for his lukewarm embrace for an expansion with no plan on how to fund it, or even a commitment to come up with a plan.

But there is some momentum to figure out a way to make it work, with a recommendation by the Commission for Innovation and Excellence in Education, or the Kirwan Commission, to phase-in universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds over the next decade as well as to all 3-year-olds from families who earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty limit. A large facet of Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski’s election campaign this fall was a proposal for voluntary pre-kindergarten in all schools.

The state reports showed that school systems that have adopted full day pre-kindergarten — Somerset, Garrett and Kent counties — have a higher-than-average percentage of students ready for kindergarten. In Kent County 53 percent of students passed the readiness assessment while in Somerset County 60 percent passed and in Garrett County 55 percent passed. All three have higher than average rates of students from disadvantaged families, with Somerset’s rate nearly as high as Baltimore City’s.

Education panel proposes $3.8 billion more school spending annually by 2030

That’s no coincidence. Plenty of other research has found that early education builds cognitive and social skills that children can take into the classroom. This can be especially important for low-income students who may not be getting basic skills at home, but is beneficial to kids of all backgrounds. It doesn’t solve all problems, but early education can help create a level playing field that gives all students the chance for long-term success in school.

A Harford County Public Schools official said the children who were most prepared for kindergarten attended child care, family child care, non-public nursery schools and public pre-kindergarten. Children from mid to high income households demonstrated higher rates of readiness when compared with their peers with no formal care. Half-day pre-kindergarten is offered at 16 elementary schools in the county and full-day at three elementary schools The full-day programs serve 220 students and are “substantially increasing readiness scores,” the official said.

A new accountability system assigns each public school in Maryland a rating of between one and five stars.

Of course, there is still the cost of early education, but enough states — including a number of conservative ones — have found a way to fund it. Many have managed to do so with existing revenue streams, but some states and localities have raised taxes specifically for the purpose. Denver and San Antonio have expanded access through sales tax revenues; Seattle through a property tax and Philadelphia through a tax on sodas.Some states such as Virginia and Iowa require local governments or providers to provide matching funding.

The Kirwan Commission hasn’t detailed how to pay for nearly $4 billion it has recommended to spend on education, including to expand pre-kindergarten. Mr. Hogan has balked at the commission’s plan saying it is too expensive. Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that requires casino revenues to support schools above and beyond what current funding formulas require, and universal pre-K would fit that definition, but Mr. Hogan has instead proposed putting $1.9 billion in new money that would come from revenue bonds funded by casino gaming revenues to pay for school construction. He has so far strongly resisted any increases in taxes.

But Mr. Hogan is going to have to come to a reckoning with the Kirwan Commission recommendations, and universal pre-K would be a good place to start.

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