Offering his take on an emerging issue of the 2014 election for governor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown rolled out a plan Tuesday to make pre-kindergarten education available to all Maryland public school children.
Brown outlined his program, billed as the first major policy proposal of his campaign, at a news conference at the Patterson Park Public Charter School in East Baltimore.
His proposal calls for "universal, high quality and voluntary" pre-kindergarten by the end of 2018. He is proposing a gradual expansion from a half-day program to a full day of school by 2022.
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Brown's plan contrasts with a proposal that his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, unveiled last week. Gansler called for making free all-day preschool available to all low-income children, calling the plan part of his strategy to reduce the "achievement gap" between students from high- and low-income families.
Rejecting that approach, Brown said pre-K programs should be open to all income levels.
"We won't rest until every 4-year-old in our state gets a running start on education," he said.
Like Gansler's plan, Brown's proposal relies on money from casino taxes — now largely channeled into education funding — to pay for an expansion estimated to cost $138 million a year in 2018. Brown said casino revenue has been greater than anticipated and is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years as new casinos come on line in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who attended the news conference, noted that pre-K education was one of the purposes for new gambling revenue allowed under the 2012 casino expansion law.
Brown said it will take four years to implement the program because it could require expansion of school buildings and forming partnerships with local school systems.
Gansler's campaign panned Brown's proposal.
"It took the lieutenant governor six months to come up with a single-point early education plan that regurgitates something he promised and failed to deliver a year ago when convincing the people of Maryland to support table gaming," Gansler spokesman Bob Wheelock said. "To suggest this as a new idea insults the people of Maryland, and leaves Maryland kindergartners yet another year behind."
Gansler is scheduled to hold a forum on early education Thursday at Loyola College.
A third Democrat in the race, Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, called Brown's plan a "step in the right direction" but promised to unveil a better plan of her own next week.
"We need to think bigger and aim higher for Maryland families," said Mizeur, who earlier criticized Gansler's proposal for its lack of what she called a "universal, comprehensive approach."
The three announced Republican candidates for governor have shown different degrees of receptivity to the idea of expanding pre-K education.
Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County said he was open to expanded preschool for poor children but opposes a universal approach. Charles County business executive Charles Lollar said he supports preschool as part of a statewide voucher system. Harford County Executive David R. Craig has dismissed the idea of making preschool expansion a priority, saying the state should focus on the problems of K-12 education.
Maryland currently provides pre-K education to almost 29,000 children. Brown's campaign estimates that another 32,000 would attend public pre-K if it were available. The lieutenant governor will propose that lower-income families receive priority for the expansion to all-day programs, He would allow higher-income families to go to a full-day program by paying a fee for the second half of the day.
Brown said the amount of spending he is proposing would be fixed and that the number of slots would depend on the cost per child, which he estimated at $4,300 for a half-day program. He said he would couple that with a scholarship program to meet the need for more preschool teachers.
Advocates of pre-K education argue that it helps children succeed through their school careers and later on in the job market. The Brown campaign pointed to a 2007 study estimating that state revenues would eventually increase $2 for every $1 spent on early education.