False economy

February 05, 2003

QUALITY CHILD CARE for at-risk children produces such long-term societal benefits that it ought to be one of the last victims of the budget knife.

Alas, that's not the case in Maryland, where the state's child care program faces devastating cuts. Almost a quarter-century of work developing a progressive care system for poor children could be lost.

The Ehrlich administration does not bear all the blame for this situation, but it must make sure the program continues without interruption.

In addition to an overall budget deficit of $1.8 billion, the administration inherited a child care fund emptied by the Glendening administration, which took the money to address other budget deficiencies in the Department of Human Resources.

Fiscal analysts say the department used $40 million improperly, then tried to replace it with various other funds. That finding, however alarming, does nothing to address the immediate consequences.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lopped $25 million from a $134 million fund for buying care in approved child care centers; he took $4 million from a $5.8 million network that matches families with licensed caregivers; he cut all but $145,000 of a $2 million training program for child care workers; and he slashed other training and licensing programs.

Overall, child care suffered a 34 percent reduction - deep enough to threaten its effectiveness. The department has instituted a waiting list for day care applicants - and hopes a new federal law will provide enough new money to restore some of the lost service.

Given the millions of dollars saved during the five years of welfare-to-work and the promise to provide day care, these actions break faith with struggling workers who only recently left welfare.

The effectiveness of quality child care is not in question. Studies show that children in good programs achieve higher reading and math scores than their peers who are not in high-quality preschool programs, and that edge continues through young adulthood. They are more likely to attend college and less likely to end up in trouble with the law; a study by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation found that adults who had the advantage of quality day care as children were less likely to be involved in criminal activities, including drug sales.

So-called economies that compromise the commitment to welfare reform and to poor children are short-sighted because good day care saves the state money: The High/Scope Foundation calculated that one dollar in day care spending saved more than $7 in social service spending later.

Governor Ehrlich has made a strong commitment to public education, echoing President Bush's promise to leave no child behind. Without quality day care, though, poor children will be far behind before they even start.

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