News from the Executive Office

Expanding Publicly Funded Programs for 4-Year-Olds

Smiling girl on playground

Here’s the question. How would you implement an expansion of publicly funded Prekindergarten in Maryland?

First, some background. When school began in the fall of 2015, there were approximately 75,000 4-year-olds in Maryland. And 36% of them, or 27,000, were enrolled in publicly funded Prekindergarten (pre-K) programs in Maryland, about 1/3 in full-day (6 hours) and 2/3 in half-day (2-1/2 hours). This was made possible by the 2002 Bridge to Excellence Act that required local school systems to provide voluntary pre-K access to 4-year-olds who lived in families with incomes at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG).

Ever since 2002, the State has moved toward universal pre-K. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) published a report, Preschool for All in Maryland, in 2007, followed in 2009 by Maryland’s Preschool for All Business Plan. Maryland’s Prekindergarten Expansion Act of 2014 expanded pre-K to 3- and 4-year-olds below 300% of FPG (adding slightly over 1,000 slots). In December 2014, the federal Preschool Development Grant program brought a four-year $60 million grant to Maryland, adding more slots.

Fast forward to the present. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission, is charged with, among other things, “. . . reviewing and assessing current education financing formulas and accountability measures and ensuring the adequacy and equity of funding for prekindergarten and other early childhood education programs . . .”

Let’s assume the following. We want all Maryland 4-year-olds to have access to high-quality, full-day pre-K. We want publicly funded pre-K available in both elementary schools and in other community-based settings that meet the standards for pre-K in elementary schools. (For decades, programs for 4-year-olds have been offered in child care centers, nursery schools, Head Start programs, and family child care homes.) I’ll call them “private settings” or “private providers” or “child care.”

Let’s further assume some implementation considerations. There is an adequate and equitable per pupil pre-K cost. MSDE has responsibility for administering state funding for pre-K. MSDE requires there to be a minimum number of public pre-K slots per school district available in private settings. The state will gradually expand eligibility for guaranteed access to free pre-K from 185% of FPG to 300% FPG and beyond, and may introduce a sliding-scale eligibility framework for higher-income families. Local school systems enter Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with private providers regarding professional development arrangements and the transition process from child care to school.

Given the assumptions above, here are two different ways to implement an expansion of pre-K:

(1) More Local School System Involvement. MSDE gives state funding to local school systems which in turn fund pre-K in elementary schools and in private settings that they determine are eligible to receive public pre-K dollars. Local school systems hire the teachers for both school-based and private programs. Their MOUs with private programs cover not only the issues assumed above but also enrollment and billing. If a sliding fee scale is introduced, local school systems collect tuition from children attending pre-K in local elementary schools. Private providers receive from the local school system the per pupil cost for a full day of pre-K minus the cost of the teachers that the local school system hires. Private providers collect tuition for services provided beyond the 6-hour “school” day and, if a sliding scale is implemented, any fees from families. Local school systems monitor the publicly funded pre-K programs, both those in elementary schools and in the private sector.

(2) More State Involvement. MSDE gives state funding to local school systems and to private providers based on capacity and location. Local school systems and private providers invoice MSDE. MSDE monitors all pre-K programs. Local school systems hire teachers only for pre-K programs in their elementary schools. Private providers hire and pay their own teachers, at least matching local school system salary and benefit levels. They collect tuition for services provided before and after the typical 6-hour school day and, if applicable, implement a sliding scale for “over-income” families.

Which works better for children? Families? Taxpayers?