Double-Edged Sword


As the idea of expanding prekindergarten in Maryland becomes more and more popular on both sides of the political aisle, the details involved in just how to implement the different programs are still a work in progress.

State officials heard from panels of advocates Feb. 12, when discussion began on Senate Bill 332 and House Bill 297, the Prekindergarten Expansion Act of 2014. The bill calls for an extension of prekindergarten services to 4-year-olds from families with maximum incomes of 300 percent of the poverty line, a move the O’Malley administration has said it hopes will help about 1,600 more Maryland children access a pre-K education.

“There is a difference between a child who starts kindergarten with a 3,000-word vocabulary and an 8,000-word vocabulary,” Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown told the House Ways and Means and the Senate Budget and Taxation committees. “And that difference is pre-K.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration has put aside $4.3 million in the 2015 budget for the establishment of a competitive grant program that would award funding to public and private prekindergarten programs that meet state standards. The idea, panelists said last week, would be to establish a geographically diverse system of pilot programs across the state.

“Early childhood education is a good investment,” said Brown.

Two of Brown’s opponents in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), have also proposed plans to expand the state’s pre-K program.

For Jewish preschools, the reaction to the bill is “disappointed but hopeful,” said Karen Barall, Mid-Atlantic director for the Orthodox Union, who testified in support of the bill.

The disappointment, she explained, stems from the fact that state funds come with strings attached. Programs awarded funding must have the right accreditation and teach to curriculum standards set by the state. The section of the community that likely would be most affected — large families with small incomes that are often the most observant — are probably the families that would be least interested in enrolling their children in a school that follows state-mandated curriculums. Even more issues arise when religious instruction enters the mix.

“The basic core for the accreditation,” said Barall, “won’t vary so much from what they currently do.”

But when Delegate Andrew Serafini (R-Washington County) asked Barall about whether she worries that state regulations will water down, and potentially even eliminate, the unique qualities that Jewish programs offer students, Barall said that is an issue the community is working through. She proposed a solution in which half of each day would follow the basic outline of any public school program and the other half, which would not be covered by state funds but rather by parents or private grants, would cover the religious aspects.

In the end, she said, there is a still a lot of unknown. But the potential good it could do for the community gives her and many others hope.

When you raise the limit to 300 percent of the poverty level, a lot of people now receiving scholarships from private preschools will meet that criteria, said Barall. “So that would relieve a burden.”

With some of the burden lifted, synagogues and JCCs could redirect funds previously allocated for scholarships to helping even more families, investing in more classroom supplies and making capital improvements.

At Beth Israel’s Joseph & Corinne Schwartz Preschool, director Rachael Schwartz said the school is in the process of getting accreditation so that, if the bill is passed, it can be in the running for state funds.

Schwartz hopes that professional and creative instructors can find a way to incorporate any state-regulated curriculum into the Jewish learning that already takes place.

“For example, I can teach patterns while teaching a Jewish holiday,” she said. “When we’re teaching a holiday such as Passover and we’re talking about the pyramids, I can bring geometry into that.”

The early years of a child’s education are critical, said Schwartz, and Beth Israel aims to employ instructors who can teach in an interdisciplinary fashion.

“I would hope that we could find a way to make both work,” she said. But, “the bottom line is, we are who we are and we are a Jewish preschool.”

The current pre-K system in Maryland serves children from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty mark — $27,142.50 for a two-person family and $41,212.50 for a family of four. Under the Prekindergarten Expansion Act, that cutoff would be raised to 300 percent of the mark — $46,530 for a single parent of one and $70,650 for a four-person family.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown: Supports raising the cutoff to 300 percent of the poverty rate in line with the Prekindergarten Expansion Act of 2014.

Del. Heather Mizeur: Proposes a four-phased plan that would eventually cover full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds regardless of income and half-day pre-K for 3-year-olds from families with incomes at or below 300 percent of the poverty line.

Attorney Gen. Doug Gansler: Calls for expanding the current half-day program to a full day for children from families at or below the 300-percent marker.

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