World-class early education

Our view: Maryland must start planning now for universal prekindergarten

March 02, 2009

Donna Fowler would like to send her youngest son to a prekindergarten class near her Bowie home. But because she and her husband earn just over the state eligibility limit for free public pre-K, she'll have to keep 4-year-old Wyatt at home this year.

The Fowlers and their five children have a family income of about $60,000, so they're not eligible for free public pre-K, which is capped at $59,200, or 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of seven. Nor can they afford the $300-a-month cost of private prekindergarten. They're stuck between rich and poor, though their need is the same.

"I can work with him on the basics, but children who don't get early education aren't as ready to learn when they enter school as those who attend pre-K," Mrs. Fowler says.

The General Assembly is considering a bill that would direct the State Department of Education to finalize a plan to gradually expand pre-K eligibility. Such a plan would ask officials to estimate the cost of prekindergarten expansion using existing facilities that provide high-quality early childhood education programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. Child advocates and educators hope Maryland will eventually provide free public pre-K for every family that wants it.

The proposal has no costs attached to it. Its purpose is solely to position Maryland at the head of the line to take advantage of the $10 billion in new federal spending on early childhood education that President Barack Obama has pledged to seek.

Currently, only about a third of the state's approximately 75,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in prekindergarten. Yet every study has shown that kids who attend pre-K do better in school, earn more as adults and are less likely to drop out or commit crimes. Quality pre-K pays for itself many times over in increased tax revenues and lower rates of incarceration.

Lawmakers should approve the pre-K proposal as an important first step toward realizing the world-class schools Gov. Martin O'Malley has said Maryland must have in order to prosper. That will be a tall order, but the place to begin surely is with high-quality public prekindergarten programs for youngsters like Wyatt Fowler.

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