Teacher Rachel Austin gathers her pre-kindergarten students at Templeton Elementary School in Prince George’s County (Christopher Anderson)

Maryland won $50 million over four years to help expand access to early education. The award was announced last week.

The state currently offers publicly funded pre-kindergarten to children from poor families or children with specific learning challenges.

“Maryland’s already a leader in early education, but we want to get to a place where pre-K is available to every four-year-old,” said Del. Tom Hucker, who co-sponsored a 2009 bill requiring the state to develop a business plan for expanding eligibility.

According to the business plan, in the year 2007-2008:

*39 percent of entering kindergartners were graduates of Maryland’s pre-kindergarten program

*43 percent had attended another kind of child care or nursery school program

*18 percent had not experienced any formal early education program

Hucker said that the politics of early education have changed dramatically over the past decade. A lot of policy makers used to be reluctant to support even full-day kindergarten programs because they thought children should be home with their mothers, he said.

But with the economic reality of two working parents and a research base showing academic dividends from early investments, there is widespread political support for early education, Hucker said.

A big hurdle is funding. The business plan, which was released in Dec 2009, estimated that providing pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old would cost an additional $121 million.