A blue-chip investment

March 23, 2007

The Baltimore school system has been a leader in providing early learning opportunities for low-income students, including kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes. But just as the system is required to provide almost-universal pre-K, it's coming up short.

At a budget hearing this week for the next academic year, interim schools CEO Charlene Cooper Boston presented an expansion plan for pre-K classes that doesn't meet the need. She and her staff must come up with a plan that covers all eligible children. Not only is it a requirement under state law, but it's one of the best, most cost-effective investments in future student success that the school system can make.

When the state's school funding law, known as Thornton, expires at the end of the next school year, districts will be required to provide at least half-day pre-kindergarten programs for all at-risk students, including those eligible for free or reduced meals and children who are homeless. That mandate makes good sense based on extensive, long-term studies showing that low-income children enrolled in quality early childhood programs have more success in school and are less likely to drop out or become involved in criminal activities.

Baltimore has certainly recognized the value of good pre-K programs. Successful outreach programs have resulted in more children enrolled in Head Start, public school pre-K classes and public and private child care programs as well as an increase in the proportion of children who are judged ready to learn when they enter kindergarten.

Despite such progress, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland estimates that about 1,500 eligible children still are not being served. As the school system prepares its budget for the next school year, Ms. Boston proposed eight new pre-K classes that would cover only about 160 students, about half of what the system promised to provide. That's way too low, given the need and the Thornton mandate.

Just doubling Ms. Boston's proposal would cost an estimated $820,000 - and that's the least the system must do. Baltimore is slated to receive about $85 million in the last year of Thornton funding. There's no question that with about 80 percent of city students classified as low-income, there are a lot of competing needs for school system dollars, but providing pre-K classes is not optional.

The school system should canvass all communities to determine the overall need for pre-K classes and then adjust the budget accordingly. If necessary, Mayor Sheila Dixon might adjust the city's budget to provide supplementary funds. There are few investments that could be more important to the city's future.

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