By LINDSEY McPHERSON
WASHINGTON (Nov. 14, 2008) - Maryland's middle-class families are struggling to put their children through pre-kindergarten programs, according to a report released Wednesday by Pre-K Now, an organization that advocates for government-funded early education in every state.
"Many middle-class families are not really fully sharing in the American dream because of the financial difficulties of gaining access to high-quality pre-K," said William Gormley, interim dean at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
But to give children—regardless of their economic status—access to early education through federal funds would cost more than $100 billion a year, said University of Maryland, College Park, School of Public Policy Professor Douglas Besharov.
The state does not fund pre-kindergarten programs for families of four who earn more than $39,220 per year, but it takes an income of at least $81,330 for a family to afford early education, according to the Pre-K Now report.
Because of the large gap, about 24 percent of the state's families with 3- or 4-year-old children are struggling to pay for early education, the study showed.
The report's author, Albert Wat, said families are not cutting back on pre-K spending.
"A lot of families really don't have much of a choice," he said. "In most families, both parents work. If they have young children, they're going to need somewhere safe ... not just safe but some place to put them so they can take advantage of the critical years that their kids are going through. The first five years are so important in terms of development down the line."
Wat outlines the importance of pre-K in the report: "High-quality pre-kindergarten programs make the most of young children's immense learning potential and give them a foundation for success in school and life," he wrote.
But the expense is big. The study showed early education and child care, which cost nearly $1,600 per month, account for 30.5 percent of a Maryland middle-class family's monthly expenses of about $5,100. It costs more than all other expenses, such as rent, food, health care and transportation.
Wat suggested policymakers give early education funding the same attention as higher education.
"These families are younger, they don't earn as much, and they've had less time to save than families with older kids," he said.
The ideal situation, Wat said, would be for states to give 3- and 4-year-old children from any financial background access to state-funded early education, a policy only eight states and the District of Columbia now have.
To fund a universal program just for 4-year-olds would cost between $10 billion and $20 billion, which is not too expensive considering the billions Congress is spending to bailout Wall Street, Besharov said.
"That's chicken feed these days, therefore we shouldn't worry about cost," he said. "Although, people who want bailouts for their mortgages may want them before this."
The Maryland Department of Education may not be prepared to fund early education for families at all income levels, but it is looking to raise the cutoff to about $52,000 per year for a family of three, said Rolf Grafwallner, the assistant superintendent for the Division of Early Childhood Development. The state has initiated six pilot programs with the higher cutoff.
"There was a very positive reception from the state board," Grafwallner said. "I think a lot of people agree that this is something that we need to do. It's beneficial for the children and the long-term benefits, but right now, there's no money to really fund it."
The government should expand pre-kindergarten access to the middle class for the same reason it funds programs for the lower class, Wat said. It will help save money on other education programs.
"A lot of middle-class children do experience the same kinds of education problems that lower-income children face, such as dropping out from high school or needing special education services," Wat said. "High-quality pre-K has the potential to alleviate these problems. There is also some research that shows that it could be more cost-effective than later remedial programs that are designed for older kids."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.