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Council Making Strides on Pre-K

On November 1, 2018, I had the opportunity to join Superintendent Jack Smith, his early education team, and members of the Board of Education for the grand opening of the MacDonald Knolls Early Childhood Center. You can read the news coverage highlighting that event here.

Grand Opening of Regional Pre K Facility

This is the first “regional pre-k facility” implemented by MCPS. It is a big step forward in the ongoing efforts by MCPS and the County Council to fund pre-k for low-income 4 year olds. There are about 100 slots for eligible children at the Center. There are also about 175 children enrolled in a pre-k program run by the Arc of Montgomery County at that same location, with about 1/3 of those children having special needs.

Three years ago, I co-authored legislation with Councilmember Nancy Navarro requiring the County to pass a Childcare Strategic Plan and create a Child Care Policy Officer. I did not get everything I wanted in that bill, such as creating an Office of Child Care independent from our County’s HHS, but the compromise bill that I passed with the support of Councilmember Navarro was a clear a step forward. The County then proceeded to hire a Child Care Policy Officer and to draft the Child Care Strategic Plan, which engaged the educator, parent, and provider community.

One of the recommendations from the plan was to focus on expanding part-day Head Start and pre-k programs to full day, and then to expand programs for low-income children in pre-k. For me, that recommendation was a light-bulb as it provided a real path forward to expand pre-k programs. Up to that point, all of the talk about universal pre-k seemed to go nowhere as a result of an overwhelming price tag. As opposed to needing $100 million or more to create “universal” pre-k, we identified that we could provide a classroom seat for all low income four year olds in the County for about $35 million. In this case low-income is defined as up to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (which is, for example, about $78,000 in annual income for a family of 3).

Based on the plan, two years ago I recommended to my colleagues on the Council that we add $5 million in the 2017 (FY18) budget to move towards the goal. Because many councilmembers care about this issue, we were successful in securing $2.5 million to fund full day Head Start and pre-k through MCPS, and to add $2.5 million to child care subsidies. As a result we created hundreds of slots for low income children.

Following on that success, with early education clearly identified as a priority for the MCPS Board of Education and our visionary superintendent Jack Smith, this year, in my Council President’s budget (FY19), MCPS requested $2.5 million in additional resources for pre-k expansions. The Council did a little better, funding not only that request but an additional $800,000 for more children to be eligible, thanks in particular to support from the Council’s Education Committee chairman Craig Rice.

As a result of these steps, there are now 700 more children enrolled in full day Head Start and pre-k programs through MCPS than there were 2 years ago. We are more than $5 million towards the goal of covering low income children. Perhaps even more importantly, we have finally taken ownership of the issue and we are marshalling resources to address the need, step by step. This is what some call “universal incrementalism,” which means having a vision for a universal service but also identifying how to get there one step at a time and actually taking those steps rather than talking about it.

Child care subsidies are also expanding. This year I have highlighted the need for our subsidies to cover a sufficient cost of care such that low income families can actually afford to participate. That has been an issue because with our existing subsidy structure, many families would be required to pay as much as a third or even a half of their income for child care — even with a subsidy. That is not tenable for low income families and as a result they remain without high quality care.

The exciting news is that this year, the state legislature passed a law authored by Senator Nancy King (D39), significantly raising state child care subsidy payments into the County. We are eagerly awaiting news about how those funds will become available.

These are crucial investments because, unfortunately, only about half of all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, and only about 25% of low-income children are ready to learn. The achievement gap opens up at the youngest age. In fact, as Jack Smith explained to me when we talked at this event, there is a physical process or impact on a young child’s brain from exposure to language. Neural pathways are created by the brain as words are heard and repeated. Not unlike a network of roads through the brain paved by words. Children that are not sufficiently exposed to words and language at a young age, which is a problem from child care that is not up to standards, will not have that physical conditioning and that is one reason they enter kindergarten behind. Quality pre-k programs can help them catch up.

Located at 10611 Tenbrook Dr., Silver Spring, MD and fully enrolled, it is our hope that the MacDonald Knolls Early Childhood Center will serve as a model for future childhood centers. This landmark achievement is a testament to the Council’s commitment that every child should start kindergarten ready to learn and prepared for a bright future in our public educational system.

For a recent and thorough review of this issue, please read our Council Staff Report.

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