Governor Martin O’Malley put $4.3 million in the budget he delivered to the General Assembly Wednesday to expand pre-kindergarten programs throughout the state.
It’s part of a nationwide trend, as educators pushing to expand pre-kindergarten programs for four-year-olds say it will help close student achievement gaps.
“We know that if we can get these children ready before they walk into kindergarten, we can close the achievement gap immediately,” said Lillian Lowery, Maryland’s Superintendent of Education. “The achievement gap doesn’t develop in kindergarten. For many of our students, the achievement gap walks in the door. And it depends on what has happened with our children in 0 to 5 (years of age).”
She said that with a tougher curriculum in place this year and constant pressure to close achievement gaps, she is glad lawmakers are discussing the need for expanded pre-K programs.
Currently, most pre-K programs are half-day classes, with the majority of the students coming from lower income families. The governor and many legislators want to make pre-K available to four year olds in a family of four with incomes up to $70 thousand dollars a year.
On the national stage, President Obama has asked Congress for $75 billion to expand pre-K and proposed using a cigarette tax to pay for it. Voters in San Antonio approved an eighth of a cent sales tax to expand pre-K. And in the nation’s capital, where pre-K has been funded since the 1960s, more than 92 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in those programs.
More than 32 hundred students are enrolled in pre-K in Baltimore County, where Superintendent Dallas Dance is urging Maryland legislators to approve additional funds to reach more students. “It’s always good to keep in mind that the 32-hundred plus kids that we are serving right now are all on the local dime and so we recognize that while we’re serving 32-hundred kids and families, there’s still more that we need to,” Dance said.
He said he hopes the additional state money will allow him to add a little more than 300 students a year to pre-K programs over the next three years to a total of about 1,000 students. Like Lowery, he pointed to the benefit pre-K can have on closing achievement gaps between students of different economic, social and racial backgrounds. “As we look at raising the bar and closing gaps, we recognize that we got to start early, we got to intervene early and we have to make sure at the high school level there are credit opportunities for our kids,” Dance said.
Numerous studies show that students who attend quality pre-K programs enter kindergarten ready to learn and often score higher on standardized reading and math exams. According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, these students are also less likely to be held back a grade, drop out of school or need special education classes. There are those who dispute these claims and think too much pressure is being placed on four year olds to learn before they are ready.
In the meantime, Lowery and Dance are watching the debate closely in Annapolis to see how it plays out.