By JESS FELDMAN
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — The state’s income threshold for families to qualify for free prekindergarten should be increased by more than 60 percent, a state workgroup told a legislative panel this week.
A state House and Senate committee weighing universal schooling for 4-year-olds met on Tuesday and acknowledged the need for an increase in funding for the early education program statewide.
A workgroup formed to study universal access to prekindergarten was charged in April with presenting a report to the governor and the General Assembly by December.
Universal, high quality, full-day prekindergarten should be accessible to all 4-year-old children through a variety of programs and providers with a combination of public and private funding, the state’s education department, presenting the workgroup’s findings, told the panel on Tuesday.
The legislative committee also took into account a report published in January 2016 by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a consulting firm in Colorado, that highlighted the need to offer more access to prekindergarten in Maryland and increase the number of high-quality spots available to serve 80 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.
According to the Colorado firm’s data, 35.6 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state prekindergarten in Maryland as of January 2016.
Maryland’s enrollment is similar to neighboring states’ — such as Delaware and Virginia, which have 5.6 percent enrollment and 17.7 percent enrollment respectively; however, other states have rates of prekindergarten enrollment greater than 70 percent, such as Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont.
Maryland currently mandates that each district provide at least a half day of free pre-K for 4-year-olds who are in households with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $45,510 for a family of four, according to Steven Hershkowitz of the Maryland State Education Association.
The income level qualification would be raised to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $73,800 for a family of four, over a period of at least 10 years if the workgroup’s recommendations are implemented.
The workgroup also suggests that funds flow through the state Department of Education and be distributed to school systems and community-based programs through a grant process.
The change would improve access for many families in the state who can’t afford a private provider, but also aren’t eligible for free programs.
Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery, the chair of the committee, said she supports expanding pre-kindergarten, but that funding will be a challenge.
“I’m definitely a believer in pre-k I’ll tell you that,” King said Tuesday. “Difference in abilities is outstanding, from someone who has had pre-k and someone who hasn’t. You wonder throughout the years who does catch up.”
On Thursday, Maryland’s Kirwin Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education is scheduled to discuss revising funding for state education, as well as consider the proposal for universal prekindergarten.