Almost 45 years after its debut, that slogan for the United Negro College Fund remains one of the most recognized in American advertising. With its motto, "The Early Years Matter," Ready At Five is focused on a similar, enduring message, but rather on the 'front end' of a child's developing mind. In the first years of life, more than 1 million neural connections form in the brain every second, building the brain's architecture and providing the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Barriers detrimental to that brain's educational achievement can start early, including those caused by poverty, caregiver mental illness, child maltreatment, and low maternal education. By the time that child reaches kindergarten, he is already behind his peers. Time and time again, the adverse effects of his gap only multiplies unless there are interventions. One proven, successful intervention is high-quality preschool. When we provide all children with equitable opportunities to attend high-quality preschool, we ameliorate some of the risks to their learning and development. Even economists illustrate that the early years matter, finding that there is a huge return on the public investment when children from low-income families attend high-quality early childhood programs.
Less than half of 4-year-olds (43%) in Maryland who entered kindergarten last year, attended publicly-funded prekindergarten, and just over one-third attended full-day programs. Stop and think about that for a minute. Just 16% of Maryland’s 4-year-olds – the majority of whom are from low-income families – were given the opportunity of a strong start needed for success in school and success in life. With such a massive inequity in prekindergarten access, is anyone surprised to see a 19-point achievement gap along income lines? The 2016-2017 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment revealed that 43% of Maryland children entered kindergarten with the foundational knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed to fully participate in the kindergarten curriculum. However, only a third of children from low-income households (as indicated by Free and Reduced Priced Meals, "FARMS") demonstrated readiness, compared to half of children from mid- to high-income households. In fifteen of the twenty-four counties, that gap is even larger. Across the state, the readiness gaps for English Learners and children with disabilities exceed these: 25% and 26% respectively. Kindergarten readiness gaps also occur by race and ethnicity. While 57% of White students demonstrated the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in school, only 37% of African Americans and 27% of Hispanics do.
An Historic Opportunity, Right Now!
As you may recall, last Spring, House Bill 516 “Workgroup to Study the Implementation of Universal Access to Prekindergarten for 4-Year-Olds,” was passed by both chambers and required the Workgroup to report its findings and recommendations to the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the "Kirwan Commission") on or before September 1, 2017. Last month, the Workgroup, with its diverse group of stakeholders including Ready At Five, released its Findings and Recommendations:
- Universal high-quality, full-day prekindergarten should be provided to all 4-year-old children in a mixed delivery system (schools and community-based settings);
- Funds should flow through the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to school systems and community-based programs;
- School systems and community-based programs must develop MOUs to establish procedures and responsibilities for implementation and transitions;
- At full implementation, MSDE should ensure at least 50% of slots are in community-based programs; and
- Universal prekindergarten should be phased-in over a period of at least ten years due to facility and teacher capacity concerns and funding availability.
Ready At Five strongly supports the recommendations of the Workgroup.
The Kirwan Commission will take these recommendations, and other important input, into consideration in order to “make recommendations for legislative and policy initiatives to increase the availability of innovative educational opportunities, and make adequate and equitable the funding for State public education.” We have an historic opportunity to remedying the longstanding deficiencies in funding provided to local school systems for prekindergarten by including prekindergarten students in local school system enrollment counts for purposes of state and local funding formulas. This was the recommendation of the Final Report of the Adequacy of Funding for Education in Maryland. A comprehensive approach to equity in education is needed. Equity doesn’t mean that all jurisdictions get the same resources; State investments must be adjusted to ensure that the less wealthy jurisdictions receive sufficient state education funds to meet the needs of its children and youth. It also means that some students get additional supports to meet their needs, such as children from low-income families, children with disabilities or developmental delays, and English learners.
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