Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler proposed the state pay for all-day preschool for low-income students to close the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students, a disparity the gubernatorial candidate calls "our biggest moral stain."
Gansler, a two-term Democrat running for governor, suggested using money from the state's lucrative casinos to pay for it, according to his prepared speech delivered at Salisbury University.
"If that wasn't what we brought gambling to Maryland to fund, what did we bring it here for?" Gansler said. The state currently pays for half-day preschool, he said, adding that working parents can not take advantage of that schedule.
Gansler also suggested parents and families of those youngsters should be mentored by college kids trained to teach reading. That mentoring work would be done through a proposed volunteer corps he named "Maryland Matters."
Access to early childhood education is poised to become one of the major issues in the Democratic contest to succeed term-limited Gov. Martin O'Malley. All three top Democrats in the race say they intend to release detailed ideas about it, some as soon as next week.
While Maryland has long had a gap in achievement between low-income students and others, a June report from the think-tank Education Sector found Maryland was among the best states in the country for closing that gap.
Since this summer, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown has worked with education experts and "stake holders" from across the state to create a detailed plan — complete with how to pay for it — that would dramatically expand access to preschool in Maryland, Brown's campaign manager Justin Schall said.
Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur called the issue "a hallmark of this campaign's upcoming proposals to eliminate the race and income-based achievement gaps that are a disgrace to our state."
Mizeur criticized Gansler's idea to expand pre-school to only poor families, and proposed a "universal, comprehensive approach" that helps students before they begin kindergarten.
None of the candidates offered specifics on how their programs would work or be funded. Brown's campaign said it would reveal those details soon.
The trio of Democrats are not the first to propose expanding pre-school in Maryland, though the prominence of the issue and it's role in the governor's race may make it more likely to win approval in Annapolis.
State analysts estimated that it would cost the state more than $100 million a year to pay for preschool for all Maryland 4-year-olds under a 2012 proposal by Baltimore Sen. Bill Ferguson to tie table-game money to pre-school.
Gansler, who formally launched his campaign last week, used the achievement disparity as a way to take a subtle swipe at O'Malley and Brown, Gansler's chief rival for the Democratic nomination. Brown and O'Malley frequently cite Maryland's No. 1 schools as one of the state's top accolades.
"There are those that would stand before you and say out loud that we have the number one schools in the country based on some funding formulas," said Gansler, according to written remarks he has delivered at a dozen campaign stops across the state and criticizing that the same can't be said for Baltimore public schools.
Some Republican candidates for governor also endorsed expanding pre-school for lower-income students in order to make children better prepared for kindergarten.
"Maybe it will work for the kids who don't have good families," said Anne Arundel County Del. Ron George, adding that he was leery of a universal plan. "I don't want to take away more time from families."
Businessman Charles Lollar of Charles County said he supported creating a statewide voucher system that would include preschool.
"We do intend on using tax dollars to find a way to ensure that every child — particularly those in the urban areas — have the opportunity to prepare themselves in early childhood education," he said.
Jim Pettit, campaign spokesman for Harford County Executive David Craig, meanwhile, contended that state and federal Democrats already foisted too many mandatory changes on public schools. "Democrats should be focusing on systemic problems with K-12 education," he said.
The party primaries elections for the 2014 contests will be held in June.