By Lauren Loricchio, Capital News Service
Maryland’s three Democratic gubernatorial candidates have made early childhood education a priority, saying the state should offer prekindergarten to more children in order to address the achievement gap.
Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery County, is scheduled to roll out a universal pre-K plan Thursday, following plans put forth by her Democratic opponents, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler.
Brown and Gansler proposed expansion of the state’s pre-K education program by means of gambling revenue raised by state casinos. Mizeur has not announced how she will fund universal pre-K.
“We are thrilled all the Democratic candidates and two of the Republican candidates seem to be supporting some sort of expansion of pre-K,” said Margaret Williams, executive director of Maryland Family Network, a nonprofit that supports early childhood education.
The state currently provides a half-day prekindergarten program for four-year-old children whose family income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which equates to approximately $43,500 annually for a family of four.
Maryland often touts its No. 1 education ranking issued by Education Week. However, advocates for a universal pre-K program say the U.S. is falling behind other nations in early childhood education.
“In general, in other western European nations, education and early childhood care is ahead of where we are in America,” Williams said.
Supporters of expanding the current program argue the importance of providing a public program for all families who need it.
“For those who need it they should be able to have it,” Williams said.
“Good childcare is an essential part of the labor market. Parents need childcare so they can go to work,” she said.
But expansion of early childhood education comes with a price tag.
Brown and Gansler both propose to use state gambling revenue to fund their proposed pre-K programs. A percentage of gambling proceeds from state casinos are allocated to an education trust fund -- approximately 49 percent of slot machine revenue and 20 percent of table game revenue.
State gaming revenues brought in more than $274 million for the education trust fund in fiscal year 2013 which exceeded state estimations by $30.3 million, according to a Maryland Department of Legislative Services report.
Revenue from casino slot machines and table games for public education are projected to be upwards of $322 million in fiscal 2014, the report shows.
Brown announced a plan for a voluntary, universal prekindergarten program, which he estimates will cost $138 million per year to fund once fully implemented.
Early childhood education will create economic benefits such as increased economic activity and the state will see a return of $2 for every $1 invested, Brown said.
“We won’t rest until every 4-year-old gets a running start and the opportunity for an early childhood education,” Brown said at an Oct. 8 campaign event at Patterson Park Charter School in Baltimore.
Brown’s program promises half-day pre-K for all children by 2018 and full-day pre-K by 2022. Some families would be required to pay a fee for the second half of the day, depending upon their income level, the plan says.
"The Lieutenant Governor's proposal is a step in the right direction, but we need to think bigger and aim higher for Maryland families,” Mizeur said.
Gansler has proposed to expand the half-day plan currently in place for disadvantaged children to a full-day program, which his website says, “would help close the readiness gap and expand access to early education for all Maryland families.”
According to Gansler’s proposal, he would provide public pre-K by 2015 to families with household incomes at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is approximately $70,000 of annual income for a family of four.
Gansler anticipates the first year of expansion will cost $20 million, and further expansion of the program will be dependent upon how successful the initial expansion is, his campaign manager Bob Wheelock, said.
However, not all candidates agree the state should expand early childhood education.
“It’s irresponsible to expand early childhood education at this time until systemic problems in K-12 education are addressed,” said Jim Petitt, spokesman for David Craig, the Harford County Executive contending for governor.
Craig’s focus will be on improving K-12 education, said Petitt.
Delegate Ron George, R-Anne Arundel, said he is more interested in promoting job creation.
“I don’t see our school system as a problem,” said the Republican candidate for governor. He said early childhood education would not be at the top of his agenda if elected.
However, George said he supports a voucher program for half-day or full-day prekindergarten for low income families.
Charles Lollar, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and businessman from Charles County, said he, too, would implement a voucher program.
“He believes education must begin early and supports preschool as an essential part of a statewide voucher system,” Karen Winterling, Lollar’s campaign manager, wrote.
Four of the six candidates will speak before the Maryland State Education Association at teachers’ annual convention in Ocean City Friday with the hope of gaining the organization’s endorsement for governor.