- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

Maryland‘s middle-class families are struggling to put their children through pre-kindergarten programs, according to a report released Wednesday by Pre-K Now, an organization that advocates for government-funded early education in every state.

“Many middle-class families are not really fully sharing in the American dream because of the financial difficulties of gaining access to high-quality pre-K,” said William Gormley, interim dean at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

The District’s pre-kindergarten funding is more generous, according to Pre-K Now. Virginia officials say they have recently boosted pre-kindergarten funding substantially and altered its aid formula.

To give all American children regardless of economic status access to early education through federal funds would cost more than $100 billion a year, said University of Maryland, College Park, School of Public Policy professor Douglas Besharov. However, a program limited to 4-year-olds would cost much less - “chicken feed” in terms of the federal budget - and should be considered, he said.

Maryland does not provide pre-kindergarten assistance for families of four who earn more than $39,220 per year, but Pre-K Now says annual family income of at least $81,330 is needed to afford it.

Because of the large gap, about 24 percent of the state’s families with 3- or 4-year-old children are struggling to pay for early education, the study said.

The report’s author, Albert Wat, said families are not cutting back on pre-kindergarten spending.

“A lot of families really don’t have much of a choice,” he said. “In most families, both parents work. If they have young children, they’re going to need somewhere … not just safe but some place to put them so they can take advantage of the critical years that their kids are going through. The first five years are so important in terms of development down the line.”

But the study said early education and child care, which cost nearly $1,600 per month, account for 30.5 percent of a Maryland middle-class family’s monthly expenses of about $5,100. It costs more than all other expenses, such as rent, food, health care and transportation.

The ideal situation, Mr. Wat said, would be for states to give 3- and 4-year-old children from any financial background access to state-funded early education, a policy only eight states and the District now have.

The Maryland Department of Education is not prepared to fund early education for families at all income levels, but it is looking to raise the income limit to about $52,000 per year for a family of three, said Rolf Grafwallner, the assistant superintendent for the Division of Early Childhood Development. The state has initiated six pilot programs with the higher cutoff.

Virginia has increased pre-kindergarten funding more than 20 percent over the past two years, to about $61 million annually, according to Delacey Skinner, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

The state this year modified its formula for pre-kindergarten funding so that participating counties now pay a maximum of 50 percent of the cost, Mrs. Skinner said. In the past, lower-income counties had to pay up to 75 percent of the cost, she said. Since the change, about 6,000 more children are enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs.

The program is an investment that could ultimately save the state money, Mrs. Skinner said. For every dollar spent, Virginia is expected to make $17 back because the children should become more productive citizens.

“All the research shows that a brain develops before the age of 5,” she said. “You can reduce remedial class sizes. When you give them a more structured environment, then that could lead to more academic success later on.”

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