2019 | Schools

County Channeling $7 Million To Expand Early Child Care

Goal is to add 600 seats in program's first year

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Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, left, and County Executive Marc Elrich

Dan Schere

Montgomery County elected officials and education leaders announced Thursday that they are setting aside $7 million in the upcoming budget to expand early childhood education over the next four years.

They plan to add 600 seats within the first year, both in school-based classrooms and new child care centers the county plans to establish through public-private partnerships.

“We know the first five years are critical to brain development, and this is a foundation,” County Executive Marc Elrich said at a news conference.

There are 76,000  children in the county under the age of six, 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line, which is $71,550 for a family of four, according to county estimates.

Elrich, who made early childhood education expansion one of his priorities during his campaign last year, said making the programs affordable for more children was a worthy long-term investment. Ultimately, he said, the county would be spending about $24,000 per student each year.

“We probably could have done a lot of things that made a lot of people happy, but we wanted to do something that really made a difference,” he said.

In November, the county opened its first regional pre-kindergarten facility, and nearly 1,000 seats have been added at publicly-funded childcare facilities within the last year, according to county data. But a previous estimate by county officials found that expanding pre-kindergarten services to all three and four-year olds would cost $32 million.

Elrich, a former public school teacher of 17 years, said the first year will be spent working to increase capacity for the expansion, by working with partners such as Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College and the Planning Board. He said the new centers could go in any location that is suitable, such as vacant bays in shopping centers.

“When we had conversations early about this, some of us realized that you can put a pile of money on the table today. But we don’t have the staff training to go in the center. We don’t have centers ready for people to move in,” Elrich said.  “So one of the things we’re gonna work on in the coming year while we’re making this investment is to find locations where we can expand and make sure we have the pathways in place so we have teachers.”

County Council President Nancy Navarro, a former school board president and advocate of early childhood education expansion, called the county’s plan a “moral and economic imperative.”

“How do we maintain our competitive edge if our workforce is not prepared?” she said.

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jack Smith said the system had allotted $1 million in its budget to add seats and a new center upcounty. But the school system’s efforts alone, he said, would not be enough to address the county’s pre-kindergarten-age population.

“That leaves thousands of students still with the need for early education, and thousands of families with the need for early care,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@ bethesdamagazine.com