By Margaret E. Williams

Maryland Family Network

Last Friday’s story Poll: Marylanders back spending more on school safety, career education, but less support for pre-K and teacher pay cites a Maryland Public Policy Institute poll in which voters say they are against making cuts to roads and transportation, public safety, or children’s health insurance to afford expansion of pre-kindergarten education.

We at Maryland Family Network, one of the state’s leading advocates for pre-K, agree that we shouldn’t trim back on those essential services. But this either/or scenario proposed by the pollsters doesn’t reflect the reality of pre-K implementation, when it’s done right.

By following a national best practice called “diverse delivery,” Maryland can cost-effectively offer public pre-K in community settings, such as private child care centers and Head Start programs, as well as public school sites. Among its many advantages, diverse delivery saves public funds by using existing facilities.

What’s more, the notion that Marylanders are “less enthusiastic about expanding pre-kindergarten” does not ring true with Maryland Family Network’s own research and experience.

Importance of first five years

The First Five Years Fund (FFYF) is a national nonprofit working towards better early childhood education for disadvantaged children through bipartisan federal advocacy. FFYF found that 89% of voters support making quality early education for children from birth through age five, including child care, more affordable.

In fact it is one of the few issues that transcends partisan or economic lines. Ninety-seven percent of Democrats, 82% of Republicans, and 85% of independents asked by the First Five Years Fund in 2017 were in favor of making early care and education more accessible to working families. Eighty-one percent of the electorate support a child care tax credit to help parents better afford quality child care and early education programs, with low- and middle-income parents who need more help getting a larger credit.

While our own research is a bit dated, when Maryland Family Network engaged Gonzalez Research to conduct a similar poll in 2010, we found that 82% of Marylanders thought it was important to expand pre-K access to all children whose parents chose to enroll them.  Seventy-three percent said it was important to make that investment even in the face of competing priorities.

Lawmakers in Annapolis are now hearing the same thing from voters.

Legislators are listening

This was demonstrated during the 2018 legislative session with the passage of bills in both the Senate and House to dramatically raise the state’s abysmally low child care subsidy rates (SB379/HB 430) and to preserve $22.3 million of pre-K expansion funding (HB1415).

If the governor listens to what these voters are saying and signs the bills into law, low-income working parents across Maryland will gain significant help in finding and paying for safe, quality child care, and the State will sustain its progress toward making public pre-K available to all families.

Early childhood education pays for itself

The fact is that early childhood education pays for itself. Every year, there is more and more research-based evidence demonstrating the importance of early childhood education for its economic, social, emotional, and intellectual benefits to children and society.

Nobel laureate economist James Heckman found that quality early learning offers a 13-to-one return on investment. Maryland’s own Washington Center for Equitable Growth says “children from low- to moderate-income families who attend high-quality prekindergarten require less special education and are less likely to repeat a grade or be victims of child abuse and neglect, thereby reducing the need for child welfare services.”

The cost savings continue because when these same children become juveniles and adults, they are less likely to engage in criminal activity, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, and will earn more money as productive adults, contributing tax dollars (and much more) to society.

Maryland Family Network is happy that the Maryland Public Policy Institute has taken an interest in the issue of pre-K expansion in Maryland. We are likewise thrilled that pre-K has been a topic of conversation among candidates for governor.

Only when we have these discussions as a community will positive change happen for the one thing on which we cannot put a price tag: our children.

Margaret Williams is executive director of the Maryland Family Network.