Electioneering seems to benefit pre-K programs

Electioneering seems to benefit pre-K programs

(Md.) With the June primary less than a week away, finding bipartisan support on almost any issue would seem a fool’s errand. But expanding early learning programs appears to be one such area of agreement.

Earlier this spring, Maryland became the latest of 30 states to adopt legislation increasing spending on preschool programs with a $4.3 million expansion that will cover about 1,600 more children.

A number of other states are considering similar proposals – most notably California – while Congressional leaders ponder a national response to early learning needs.

“We have taken an important step toward providing universal, voluntary pre-k for all Maryland children,” said Lt. Governor Anthony Brown in a statement. “By enrolling an additional 1,600 kids in high quality pre-K, we’re helping more of our students climb the ladder of opportunity toward success and continuing to close our state’s achievement gap.”

Citing research that shows a significant return on investment taxpayers make in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs like Head Start, President Barack Obama proposed last year providing preschool services to all 4-year-olds from low and moderate income families as well as grants to states under the Race to the Top competition to support better coordination and clearer learning standards for the nation’s youngest students.

While Congress ponders the proposals, states are not waiting.

Along with Maryland, a number of other states – both red and blue – have moved this year to improve early learning services including New York, South Carolina, Michigan, Alabama and Texas.

Under Maryland’s new law, 4-year-olds whose family household income is at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for free pre-K – meaning that an annual salary of $61,000 would qualify a family of four. Previously, the threshold was closer to $45,000 per year for the same size family.

Meanwhile, leading Congressional Democrats have offered the Strong Start for America's Children Act, which incorporates much of Obama’s early learning proposal from his State of the Union address last year.

The proposal would offer matching grants to states and  local educational agencies to cover full-day preschool for all 4-year-olds from families with income that does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The bill would require staff to have at least a bachelor’s degree, that class sizes be kept at minimal teacher-student ratios and it would provide for ongoing program evaluation.

Co-authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and Rep. George Miller, D-California, the Strong Start plan passed out earlier this month of Harkins’ Health and Education Committee but remains bottled up in the House.

Meanwhile in California, universal pre-school is provoking a showdown between Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature’s Democratic leaders.

Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, scaled back his preschool bill to just those 4-year-olds whose families qualify for subsidized meals. A prior version of the bill would have covered all 4-year-olds and cost about $1.5 billion a year – a price tag that Brown apparently would not support.

It is unclear whether the governor will go along with the latest version of SB 837, as Brown has said he wants to use the state’s growing revenue surplus to pay down debt and set aside in a rainy day account.