By ERIKA WOODWARD
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 18, 2009)—Parents and advocates urged legislators Monday to pass a bill that would require the Maryland State Board of Education to create a plan for extending publicly-funded prekindergarten to all families.
Under the existing Bridge to Excellence in Education Act, those at or below 185 percent of the poverty level are entitled to publicly-funded prekindergarten.
The new legislation seeks to move toward universal prekindergarten by requiring the state board of education to formulate an expansion plan with guidance from school superintendents and county governments. The proposal would be included in the Maryland Preschool for All Business Plan to be finalized on or before Dec. 1.
Because it has no fiscal note, proponents expect the bill to attract the support of lawmakers, especially those grappling with mounting budget shortfalls. But the bill's biggest draw may be its potential to grab federal stimulus dollars.
"This bill doesn't cost any money this year, but it makes the state department of education finalize their business plan, do a final cost estimate, so we know how much it will cost to get pre-K to every child in Maryland," said Delegate Tom Hucker, D- Montgomery, a sponsor of the bill.
"And it puts us in better position to access the federal dollars that President Obama is making available," he said. "He's committed $10 billion to early education."
Hucker said pre-K is "extremely important" to ensuring that every child in Maryland is prepared to succeed academically. He said it's time we rise to the level of our Virginia and Washington competitors who "passed universal prekindergarten programs that they're in the first stages of funding."
Donna Fowler, a mother of five children who testified in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the program expansion is desperately needed.
Fowler told legislators that her 4-year-old son Wyatt Fowler has been denied social and educational opportunities because she and her husband cannot afford to enroll him in prekindergarten.
"It's really heart wrenching for me as a parent who knows how important it is for your child to have those quality education opportunities at a young age to be in a position where I can't afford a private prekindergarten for him," she said.
Fowler, who moonlights as a childcare advocate, said she was just at "the cusp" of the income cut-off. The family earns between $50,000 and $60,000 per year.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick agreed that expanding access to prekindergarten would help families and added it would also help the state to continue to be a leader in education.
But she also sold it as fiscally responsible.
"If we want to spend less money in remediation costs then we need to support this bill," she said, pointing to studies that have shown children who are enrolled in prekindergarten are more likely to graduate from high school than their non-enrolled counterparts.
But not everyone is convinced the best things in education are free.
John Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said he supports the bill, but in the end, it all comes down to money.
He said the state does not provide per pupil funding for prekindergarten students and questions how local governments would absorb the cost if the program expansion were enacted.
"We just want to add one item to what the plan includes," he said. "The plan should cost this out."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.