The idea of offering universal prekindergarten services was intriguing enough to fill a Montgomery County high school cafeteria on Wednesday night.
The crowd of about 200 people who attended the forum was largely supportive of enriching education to reach children in their most formative years. But the attendees also came with questions about the proposal.
Child care providers wondered if their business would dry up. Parents asked if the services would be ready in time for their children. Early childhood educators urged for including second-language learning in the discussion.
County Council member Craig Rice, who hosted the forum with school system Superintendent Jack Smith, said charting the path forward for universal prekindergarten depends on this type of input from community members.
“I truly think something this important has to come from the ground up,” he told the group gathered at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
Rice is on a state commission—nicknamed the Kirwan Commission after its chair, William Kirwan—tasked with examining Maryland’s education funding system. Expanding preschool education will form part of the commission’s discussion in coming months. Rice said the group is required to send its final recommendations to state lawmakers by December.
Montgomery County can’t afford to pay for universal preschool education, so working with state officials is essential to making the concept a reality, Rice said.
A legislative analysis that the county released this year found that offering a universal prekindergarten program would cost $113 million to $128 million each year.
However, the report also determined that the programs would pay dividends in the long run by reducing child welfare and criminal justice costs, lower spending on special education and school support and increase future income for participants.
Smith said Montgomery County Public Schools can partner with other agencies and groups in creating these programs, but the system does not have the resources to do it alone.
“I think this is a community question, not a school system question,” he said.
Some meeting participants said parents can contribute toward the cost of offering services, but bearing the full burden is too much for many families. One woman said she was on track to spend more on her daughter’s early childhood education than on earning her master’s degree from the University of Maryland.
Rice and Smith agreed that these programs should be designed to meet people in a wide variety of circumstances.
“For some people, they need a little bit of help. Some people need a lot. Some people don’t need help,” Rice said.
Rice and Smith also fielded questions about including current child care providers in the preschool plans. Some speakers suggested offering these providers financial assistance to take college courses. Others said that perhaps neighborhood schools could forge partnerships with the providers.
One mother asked about the possible timeline for seeing progress on universal prekindergarten and how the massive undertaken would be funded. Rice said the money would likely come from a combination of county, state and other sources.
He said that with the Kirwan Commission issuing its report in December, Maryland lawmakers could take up a funding proposal in the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.