Preschool for all
Montgomery task force makes a case
for expanding early public education;
costs dampen immediate hopes
After months of work, a Montgomery County task force has come out with a basic outline for expanding preschool programs in public schools and private day-care centers.
More than three dozen states offer preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds and the push has been on for years to make all-day classes available, but not mandatory, for 4-year-olds in Maryland.
Studies affirm that preschoolers immersed in structured education programs arrive at kindergarten better prepared socially and academically, cutting down on the amount of remedial work necessary as they move through the grade-school years. The state's "Bridge to Excellence" initiative seven years ago established funding programs to aid more children from economically disadvantaged families in the public schools.
The Montgomery task force report, released Monday, offers the first glimpse at the costs of running an expanded preschool program and addresses some of the thornier issues, such as accrediting private day-care centers that want to get into the business and obtain state funding.
Based on projected need, the report estimates an additional $17.7 million a year would be required for tuition and "enhancement costs" to build on existing classes and services to make "preschool for all" available to more children in Montgomery.
In good times, the amount would barely cause a blip on the radar in the context of a $2 billion-plus school budget. In these recessionary days, the amount looms large and spending to sustain existing programs and services should be a priority before new ones are added.
The price tag also doesn't include the costs of getting more children from home to school and back again. The task force notes, correctly, that poor families would need to have reliable transportation provided for their children and that there would have to be greater flexibility in after-school child care programs. The report suggests that some families could be charged for transportation, based on household income.
Suffice it to say total costs to the county, still too difficult to calculate with precision, are going to be higher than $17.7 million.
Phasing in programs, starting in areas where the need is determined to be the greatest, will be necessary and the rollout will have to be delayed. The task force has provided a modest framework to help coordinate the next steps and expectations need to be tempered.
Most evidence is clear that educational head starts are worthwhile. Citing a state-commissioned cost analysis, the county task group points out there could be a "substantial return" on a greater investment in a voluntary preschool program, with $4.85 in "net benefits" for every $1 invested.
Montgomery should press forward with the planning to expand voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds, realizing that fiscal pressures will curtail an ambitious launch. In these times, maintaining and protecting a basic education must be the priority. New programs must wait until it's clear the money is available to sustain them and every dollar is justified.