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General Assembly Turns its Attention to Four-Year-Olds

March 15, 2012

BALTIMORE - Four-year-olds are getting attention in the General Assembly today and Friday, as hearings are held on "Preschool for All" legislation. The bills would provide every pre-school-age resident access to a high-quality, full-day program - for free.

Danista Hunte, director of community investment at the Baltimore Community Foundation, says the importance of high-quality early learning is well documented, but the economic development perspective should be considered, too.

"Those children, in higher numbers, are likely to graduate from high school and acquire more education. You take a very long-term look and you've got an educated workforce - people who will increase our productivity."

Maryland currently offers free pre-k to families considered very poor, Hunte says, adding that those at the upper end of the income scale already have access to private programs. Another economic perspective relates to how full-day programs keep parents in the work force, she says.

"There's a huge population in the middle that this bill would support. These people would be able to put their children in places where they know the kids are going to be safe and well-educated, and then they can go to work."

She says high-quality pre-k programs can be run by public schools, Head Start or private providers at centers and family-based settings.

The programs would be paid for through the State Education Trust Fund, which is supported by state-approved video lottery terminals and table games. Hunte notes there is strong support for the pre-k idea but some concern about relying on gambling for its funding - and it is funding that would require approval by a voter referendum.

HB 1241 is scheduled for a hearing today before the House Ways & Means Committee. SB 878 is set for a Senate Budget & Tax Committee hearing on Friday.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MD