Maryland’s pre-K expansion plan proves to be unpopular with child care providers

Maryland’s pre-K expansion plan proves to be unpopular with child care providers

Patti Smith, director of the Greenway Learning Center in Greenbelt, with some of the children under her care this spring. Smith is reluctant to join the state's pre-K program.

By AUDREY KEEFE and MIRA BEINART

Maryland is counting on private child care providers to take part as the state expands its pre-K program — but many providers don’t plan on becoming involved.

In a spring survey of the state’s child care providers conducted by the Local News Network, only 12.9% of respondents said they plan to or were already involved in the pre-K program created under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the state’s expansive education reform plan.

More than a third of the 256 respondents said they were unsure whether they will participate in the pre-K expansion — but nearly 40% said they would not participate.

The pre-K expansion plan under the 10-year Blueprint for Maryland’s Future aims to expand pre-K enrollment to all 4-year-olds and all lower-income 3-year-olds through a “mixed delivery system” involving both public schools and private child care operations.

But many child care providers who responded to the survey said they are reluctant to take part in the program. Some said they would have trouble finding staff for a pre-K operation. Others said they didn’t want to get the additional education required to qualify for the program. And others said they didn’t want the Maryland State Department of Education to be more involved in their business than it already is.

Patti Smith, the director of Greenway Learning Center in Greenbelt, said she’s also concerned developmental differences between 3- and 4-year-olds would make managing a pre-K program difficult.

Asked if she would take part in the pre-K expansion, Smith said: “It’s more ‘no’ than ‘maybe,’ just for the first year because I want to see what other providers do. And I don’t have faith in MSDE. You know, I don’t think they have all the answers — so I’m not ready to be that guinea pig.”

The mixed delivery system

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which the General Assembly passed in 2021, calls for widespread changes throughout the state’s public schools.

And one of the most wide-ranging changes is a vast expansion of early childhood education. The plan calls for state-funded pre-K to be available to all low-income 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 fiscal year. Pre-K will be free to all 3- and 4-year-olds from families that earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level. A sliding scale will determine what families with incomes between 300% and 600% of the federal poverty level will pay for pre-K, while higher-income families will pay for it in full.

“This is another step in the right direction to ensure pre-kindergarten programs continue to grow and create more opportunities for our children and families, especially those who have been historically underserved,” Maryland State Board of Education President Clarence  Crawford said in 2023.

While 40% of the state’s eligible youngsters were enrolled in pre-K in the 2022-23 school year, the Blueprint aims to double that percentage in a decade. Given that 30,718 young Marylanders were enrolled in pre-K in 2022-23, the change means tens of thousands of additional children will be enrolled in pre-K in the coming years.

State officials have set a goal of having private providers fill half the state’s pre-K slots by the 2026-27 school year.

“And part of the reason for that is … there is not enough space in the public schools to actually provide all those slots for pre-K,” Rachel Hise, the executive director of the Blueprint’s Accountability and Implementation Board, said at a conference of school principals late last year.

Hise acknowledged, though, that the mixed-delivery effort faces some major challenges, including one that haunts the state’s entire child care system.

“The pandemic really drove a number of child care providers out of business,” she said.

A widespread reluctance

On top of a statewide shortage of child care providers — which the Local News Network at the University of Maryland documented earlier in this series — education officials face another significant challenge in creating that mixed delivery system. The Local News Network survey this spring found many remaining child care providers are either reluctant to participate in the pre-K expansion or are refusing to take part.

Several child care providers said joining the pre-K program would make a hard job even more difficult.

“I’m overwhelmed with the day-to-day operational issues,” such as staff turnover and increased operating costs, said Dana Miller of Little Smiling Faces Childcare in Mitchellville, in Prince George’s County. “Having to find a qualified teacher (for pre-K) would just add more issues.”

Under the Blueprint, by the 2025-26 school year, pre-K teachers will have to be state-certified in early childhood education,or have a bachelor’s degree and be taking part in an alternative educators training program. Pre-K teaching assistants will be required to have an associate’s degree, whereas now they only need a high school diploma.

Those requirements automatically block some child care providers from offering pre-K.

“It’s my understanding that you have to have a bachelor’s to participate, and I do not,” said Danielle Zulauf, owner of Tiny Trailblazers Daycare in Preston, in Caroline County.

Michele Stritch, owner and operator of Michele Stritch Family Child Care in Dundalk, said in response to the survey that she is reluctant to participate in the pre-K because she doesn’t know what it entails. She also noted her center faces financial challenges and concerns about state regulations.

“I am inclined to not participate because I do not want the state being even more involved in how I run my business,” Stritch said.

On top of all those issues, state education planners face one more challenge. The results of the LNN survey showed the percentage of child care providers who want to take part in the pre-K program — 12.9% — is exactly the same as the percentage of those who had never heard of it.

“I would love to participate but have never heard of the program,” said Charnetta Bailey, owner and operator of Children Learning Wonders in Ellicott City.

A publicity push?

Told about the survey results, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, Raven Hill, indicated better publicity is the key to making sure more child care providers decide to offer pre-K.

“MSDE continues to invite private providers to participate in PUSH to Pre-K webinars to increase awareness of publicly funded Pre-K and provide accurate information and support regarding Pre-K grant opportunities and requirements,” Hill said in a written response to questions submitted by the Local News Network. “MSDE will continue to encourage local education agencies to engage private providers in their areas about pre-K opportunities and the pre-K grant program benefits to children and families.”

In addition, the state is tweaking its grant awards program to make more child care facilities eligible for pre-K funding, Hill said.

Tiffany Jones, owner of Precious Moments Family Childcare  in Rockville, said she plans on participating in the expansion program. However, she said it’s difficult for many child care providers to understand the state’s pre-K effort.

“The requirements to participate in pre-K expansion are very challenging for the average family child care provider,” she said. “So while pre-K is a wonderful program, they need the spaces in family child care for the system to really work — but there are a ton of requirements for providers (that are) very difficult.”

Even so, some child care providers said they plan on taking part in the pre-K expansion because doing so is important for the survival of their business. After all, if they lose 3- and 4-year-olds to either public schools offering pre-K or to other providers, that means fewer enrollees and lower revenue.

“I feel the school is taking all of the 4-year-olds and some of the 3-year-olds,” said Laurie Arnold, owner of Laurie Arnold Home Daycare in Frederick, who plans to take part in the pre-K program. “In order to keep my numbers up, I have to adjust.”

In time, despite the fact that she said she doesn’t want to be a “guinea pig,” Patti Smith of the Greenway Learning Center may end up adjusting, too.

She said she’s taking a wait-and-see attitude toward joining the pre-K expansion and may join it eventually. But she said she’s afraid those providers who decided to take part starting this year may have a difficult confrontation with reality when the next school year starts.

“Come September, they're gonna go: ‘Oh, we don't have enough room. We don't have enough teachers,’ ” Smith said. “I do think they've bitten off more than they can chew.”

Local News Network director Jerry Zremski contributed to this report.

About The Author

Capital News Service

aflynn1@umd.edu

Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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