Public pre-school becomes campaign issue

Photo by Hubertk on Flickr

By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

All three Democratic candidates for governor have proposals for expanding pre-kindergarten education in Maryland, which they discussed in a segment of Monday’s debate. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown has been attacking Attorney General Doug Gansler for this failure to promise universal pre-K across Maryland.

Currently 41 states, including Maryland, offer some form of subsidized pre-K program.

“I’m super excited about this,” Del. Heather Mizeur said in the debate. “We are finally going to tackle the achievement gap in our schools.”

Despite having a public school system ranked top in the nation by a Education Week magazine  five years in a row, Maryland still has a substantial achievement gap, as Gansler has repeatedly lamented since the launch of his campaign.

Brown Mizeur Gansler

At Monday night’s debate on Maryland Public TV, Anthony Brown, Heather Mizeur and Doug Gansler

By the fourth grade, low-income and minority students in Maryland score 30 points below their peers in math, and 26 points below them in reading. Perhaps more troubling still, these students drop out of school at a higher rate than their counterparts.

Progress on the gap

In recent years, Maryland has made significant progress in closing this gap. According to a 2013 report by Education Week, Maryland ranked second in the nation for closing the 4th grade reading gap, and 11th in the nation for closing the 8th grade math gap. Despite this, the state’s achievement gap remains larger than the national average.

“Maryland is making amazing progress in narrowing the achievement gap,” Adam Mendelson, spokesperson for the Maryland State Education Association said. “There’s still room to go though, and I think that’s why you hear so much about pre-K. Because that’s a really research-backed method for getting kids in schools better prepared to achieve.”

(The MSEA has endorsed Brown in the race.)

Studies have shown that by the time students enter kindergarten, there is already a disparity in school readiness for minorities and those in a lower socio-economic group. Attendance at pre-k has been demonstrated to diminish and even close that gap.

Additionally, studies into further benefits of preschool education have traditionally returned positive results.

Research shows that children who attend high-quality pre-K programs are less likely to commit crimes, and demonstrates that children who had preschool education graduate at higher rates. These youngsters are also more prepared for school,perform better in school and even earn higher salaries after graduation. From these studies, estimates on the investment return of pre-K have varied from $3 to $16 for every dollar spent.

Candidates call for pre-K expansion

Speaking on the subject of pre-K at the debate Gansler said, “One thing is for sure. When a student shows up for school in kindergarten, and comes in with a 3,000 word vocabulary from an under-served area, and another student shows up from Howard County or Montgomery County with an 8-10,000 word vocabulary, that first student is never going to catch up.”

Currently, Maryland offers a program of targeted pre-K to four-year-olds from low-income families. Prior to the debate, all three candidates had outlined plans on their website for expanding this program in some way.

Anthony Brown had proposed moving from pre-K for low-income students to universal pre-K for all four-year-olds, Doug Gansler had proposed full-day pre-K for low-income four-year-olds, while Mizeur had proposed a universal, full-day pre-K program for four-year-olds and a low-income targeted, half-day access for three-year-olds.

At the debate, Mizeur was the first to speak on the subject, giving a summary of her plan, which is laid out in great detail on her website. She proposes to fund it with the taxes from the legalization of marijuana.

Gansler explained that his plan is to start by offering targeted full-day pre-K as this is the most financially responsible option. His plan would be funded by revenue from gambling. The program would be expanded gradually, he explained, when it was financially viable, but he did not include a time frame.

Brown explained that he would institute universal half-day pre-K by 2018, which would be funded with revenue from gambling. By 2022 the program would be expanded to full-day universal pre-K, although Brown did not specify how this would be funded. Brown’s website indicates that his education programs would be funded by the return the state would get on its own investment.

“When we go to full-day universal pre-K by 2022 that’s going to take a little bit more of a traditional funding relationship between state and county government,” Brown said, meaning the counties would have to cover part of the tab. “And we’ve got until 2022 to figure that out.”

Teachers support Brown

The Maryland State Education Association has come out in favor of Brown’s plan.

“I think one reason we are supportive of Anthony Brown is that his plan strikes the right balance of being attainable and consistent with the research we have at hand about the value of universal pre-K for four-year-olds.” said Sean Johnson, the assistant executive director of legislative and political affairs for MSEA.

In general, research shows that the more high-quality early childhood education children receive, the better-off they are. One recent study even postulated that subsidizing child care below the age of three could both eliminate the achievement gap and provide the best return on investment.

Applying these findings in a manner that can be duplicated in large scale state programs is difficult though. Some research from state programs indicates that universal pre-K helps to close the achievement gap, while other studies suggest that targeted pre-K is a better value.

The research is such that some have even called into question the ability of state-sponsored programs to provide the type of quality education that is needed to close the achievement gap.

Speaking at a Maryland Public Policy Institute education forum held on May 17th Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Institute cautioned against putting too much faith in public pre-K programs.

“The federal Head Start program has been around for nearly 50 years and has not improved outcomes over those years,” Burke said.  “The Perry Preschool Project found that children in the program were less likely to be arrested five or more times when they became an adult. Out of that they extrapolated that you would get a $7 return on investment. But this was a boutique pre-K program so there are serious problems of replication. I think any large-scale, government preschool program is far more likely to mirror the results of Head Start than any other program.”

Advocacy groups like MarylandCAN acknowledge these programs, but still insist pre-K is one of the most research-backed methods around for closing the achievement gap.

“The biggest roadblock right now is we haven’t really created a sustainable way of funding pre-K,” Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN said. “I think as we see a growing support for pre-K we’re moving towards universal pre-K but it will be hard work to figure out the fiscal challenges. But the sooner all kids are going to school together the sooner we’ll see the lessening of the achievement gap.”