By ESTHER A. NGUONLY, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - State spending for pre-kindergarten education decreased in Maryland over the past two school years, making it one of the poorest states in providing resources to preschool children in the nation, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Enrollment of 4-year-olds has been steadily increasing, with Maryland enrolling among the highest percentage nationwide.
But financial support is not keeping up with the enrollment growth, said W. Steven Barnett, director of the institute.
A total of 24,219 of Maryland's children are enrolled in pre-kindergarten—30.7 percent of all 4-year-olds, and 1 percent of 3-year-olds.
However, Maryland only spends about $1,787 per child enrolled in pre-kindergarten, 48.7 percent less than the national average of $3,482 per child, and second-lowest of all states with pre-kindergarten programs, according to the report.
"Preschool receives less than one penny of the government's budget," said Barnett, "but it's the penny that feels the budget ax first."
The Maryland State Department of Education said the state's per child spending is actually $1,851 for 2006. That higher number would not have changed Maryland's ranking, said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for the department.
However, the state's low rank is reflective of the huge increase in pre-kindergarten enrollment, particularly after a 2002 statute requiring all local school systems to provide pre-kindergarten education to all poor children, said Grafwallner. The state has not caught up with the swell in enrollment.
The trend of rising enrollment and declining funding found in the report is reflected nationally, too. Nearly 1 million U.S. children are enrolled in preschool, a 40 percent increase since 2002, but the average state spending for children enrolled has steadily decreased each year since.
It is important to focus on education during the pre-kindergarten years because the brain undergoes the most rapid and critical development in the earliest years in a child's life, Barnett said.
"Yes, early childhood school is 'real school,'" said 2006 National Teacher of the Year Kimberly Oliver, a kindergarten teacher from Silver Spring.
Providing early childhood education is important in closing achievement gaps that begin early on, Oliver said.
One of Oliver's students started kindergarten at Broad Acres Elementary School with a preschool foundation of basic alphabet knowledge that allowed him to begin reading in his first month and continue to advance in reading and math through the next grades. Another student in the same class came without any structured education, preventing her from singing the alphabet song with other students or identifying her own name on her seat and cubby—situations that undermined the girl's confidence and required more of the teacher's attention.
The pre-kindergarten initiatives at her school have increased since Oliver began seven years ago, she said, and recent policy changes will help bolster the state's focus on the needs of those children.
In July 2005, responsibility for all matters regarding child care was transferred to the Maryland State Department of Education.
"Maryland is being innovative with early childhood education," said Oliver. The policy changes in child care services will help to maintain consistency in expectations for preschoolers across the board, she said, a trend that will be important in coming years.
All school districts in Maryland offer the state preschool program and receive funding.
The gap between the average amount spent on a pre-kindergarten child and on children in kindergarten through 12th grade is wide—a difference of $2,641 per child, according to the report.
"No year of a child's life is unimportant," said Barnett. "As a nation, we cannot afford to squander our children's futures."
The reported amount spent per child does not reflect differences in state programs, said Grafwallner, including students who attend half-day or full-day programs, which would double or cut in half the amount allocated to each student.
Moreover, it does not reflect variances in states' spending calculations, such as the distribution of money contributed by the state and by local and federal contributions.