Maryland slowly expands some pre-kindergarten classes to more students


Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown helps a pre-kindergarten student at Hernwood Elementary in Baltimore County spell her name. (Jenna Johnson/TWP)

Last school year, Hernwood Elementary in Maryland’s Baltimore County had to turn away families that made just a bit too much money to qualify for the school’s free, half-day pre-kindergarten class.

But most of those families could not afford a pricey private program, so their children had to wait a year to start their education, likely putting them farther behind their wealthier peers, said Hernwood Principal Stefanie Fogleman. Even families that qualified sometimes landed on a waiting list, she said, or couldn’t participate because they lacked transportation.

This school year, Hernwood received a state grant to expand its pre-kindergarten program — easing the income requirement, adding spots for 18 new students and providing transportation for those who need it. There’s no longer a waiting list, and Fogleman said there are two spots still open.

Earlier this year the Maryland General Assembly approved the Pre-kindergarten Expansion Act of 2014, which set aside $4.3 million to expand some pre-k classes to at least 1,500 more children. Baltimore County received about $720,500 to expand pre-k classes to about 180 more children.

Maryland already provides pre-k classes to about 29,000 low-income students, and as many as 32,000 more children might attend if they could. The grants are considered a small step toward expanding pre-kindergarten classes to all Maryland 4-year-olds, a top campaign promise of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) as he runs for governor.

Brown visited Hernwood, northwest of Baltimore in Randallstown, on Wednesday morning to see how the grant money is being used — and, of course, to press his campaign talking points.

“There’s a big difference between... kids who are in pre-k and not,” Brown told a local television reporter against the backdrop of kids who were practicing spelling their names.

Brown has proposed slowly increasing access to pre-k classes each year so that all 4-year-olds can enroll in a half-day program regardless of family income by 2018, the end of the next governor’s first term in office. That would likely cost $120 million to $130 million per year, Brown said Wednesday, and would be paid for using revenue from expanded gambling.

By 2022, Brown wants to give all 4-year-olds access to an all-day program — a more expensive expansion that he said will require the state and counties to reexamine how public education is funded. That would have to come during a second term in office.

“That’s going to be a bigger lift; it’s going to be more,” Brown said. “And we’ve got time over the next four years to identify the revenues and put the plan into motion.”

Until now, the General Assembly has been hesitant to create universal pre-kindergarten because of the associated cost. Brown’s opponent in the race for governor, Republican Larry Hogan, has said that the cost of universal pre-k is too high, given the heavy taxes that many families are already paying.

Brown’s expansion plan could cost as much as $369 million over five years, and the lieutenant governor has “no realistic way to pay for it,” said Hogan campaign spokesman Adam Dubitsky. While Hogan would like to expand pre-k, it is more important for him to first improve Maryland’s existing education system and lessen the achievement gap between low- and high-income students, Dubitsky said.

“Anthony Brown is making a $369,400,000 promise he can’t keep to overtaxed Maryland parents and guardians,” Dubitsky said Wednesday afternoon.

At Hernwood on Wednesday morning, Brown chatted with local politicians and school leaders, plus a handful of 4-year-olds who were slightly less eloquent on the virtues of universal pre-kindergarten. The first student Brown spoke with was a young boy gluing shoes onto a paper doll.

“Look at your shoes!” the lieutenant governor said, as at least half a dozen cameras captured the interaction.

The boy replied: “They’re stinky.”

Other topics of conversation with other students included favorite colors, glue sticks, name spellings and letters of the alphabet.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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