Maryland school systems and private providers will soon have access to a new grant program aimed at expanding pre-kindergarten services in the state.
Gov. Martin O’Malley signed on Tuesday the Pre-Kindergarten Expansion Act of 2014, which sets aside grant money to help programs take in more children, jump from half-day to full-day services or open their doors for the first time.
The O’Malley administration labeled the act one of its priorities in the state’s 2014 legislative session, which ended Monday.
The program will start in fiscal 2015 with about $4.3 million.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) said the legislation marks another step toward the larger goal to provide universal, half-day pre-kindergarten by 2018.
The state will seek out the best, most innovative public and private programs to channel grant funds to, he said.
“Our intent is to see an equitable distribution around the state,” Brown said. “We would like to see, if not every county, every region of the state have a program that is funded [through the grant program].”
He said the new grant funds will allow about 1,600 more children to attend pre-kindergarten programs than the current 29,000 low-income children in the state who use the services.
Janine Bacquie — director of Montgomery County Public Schools’ Division of Early Childhood Programs and Services and co-chair of the Montgomery County Early Childhood Advisory Council — said she thinks it will benefit the state that many different types of pre-kindergarten providers could receive the grant funds.
Bacquie said the school system will support the three child care programs it currently partners with, should they decide to apply for grant funds. The system is also open to working with other programs interested in applying for grant funds and seeking the school system’s endorsement, she said.
Bacquie said the county advisory council she co-chairs has determined through its studies that the county should place an emphasis on child care programs above other providers.
The affordabilty of child care is a major issue in the county, she said, and state dollars could help providers reach more families.
Compared to the school system’s pre-kindergarten programs, community child care providers are sometimes able to provide longer hours and year-round services, she said.
Some families also prefer informal or family child care, she said.
The new law also expanded which families are eligible for pre-kindergarten services through programs that receive grant funds.
The state now requires public pre-kindergarten programs to provide services to families with income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Programs could use grant funds to expand their services to families whose income falls at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
Increasing the pool of eligible families brings up “mixed points,” Bacquie said.
More families facing financial hardship will have access to the services, she said, but the state might also be missing families at or below the 185-percent level who want the services.
Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village, a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said the grant program is purposefully flexible to allow for different programs to get the money they need to expand or start.
By way of a grant program, King said, the state can make sure the funds are going to the right, high-quality places and are not geographically lumped together.
The law allows private entities to add funds to the program, and King said she expects significant contributions from corporate sponsors to supplement state dollars.
The grant pool of $4.3 million is not enough, she said.
“It’s clearly not enough, but it’s at least a really good start in the program,” she said.