County renews commitment to expanding pre-K as COVID-19 creates challenges
County has added nearly 400 full-day pre-K slots in past year
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich speaks during a press conference Tuesday morning.
screenshot via livestream
Montgomery County officials on Tuesday renewed their commitment to expanding access to pre-kindergarten and child care programs.
Last year, in an effort spearheaded by County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council Member Nancy Navarro, the county launched an aggressive four-year “action plan” to provide more access to the programs.
Since then, MCPS opened a new early childhood education center in Germantown, providing space for 85 pre-K students, and added additional space at existing centers.
In total, 115 full-day pre-K slots were added in the past year, and 280 half-day seats were expanded to full-day seats, according to a new county report released Tuesday afternoon. Additionally, about 500 child care seats were added.
“While we’ve made good progress, we must continue to move forward, and this action plan is going to help us do that, and help us continue to build and add and grow the programs,” MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said during a press conference Tuesday morning. “Right now, many (programs) are virtual or partially virtual, and no matter what happens in the future, they are critical to a young child’s future success.”
The first year of the four-year plan was executed with $7 million in funding.
Over the next three years, the county plans to spend:
• $10 million on the program in Fiscal Year 2021
• $12 million in Fiscal Year 2022
• $13 million in Fiscal Year 2023
Funding could possibly come from beverage container taxes, developer impact fees, an income tax increase, philanthropic investments or property tax increases, according to the county’s report.
The county has not determined which revenue source to tap, the report says.
In the next three years, the county will focus on continuing to expand the number of pre-K seats available, making private programs more affordable and raising awareness about the availability and benefits of early childhood education.
In Montgomery County, 53% of kindergarten students surveyed were “ready to learn” at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education, compared to 54% the prior year.
The state defines kindergarten readiness as a student’s mastery of language and literacy, mathematics, social foundations, physical well-being and motor development.
In Maryland, about 47% of kindergarteners are ready to learn. The percentage is significantly higher in counties — like Somerset (60%), Garrett (55%) and Kent (53%) — that offer full-day pre-K to all students.
Research suggests students who are prepared for kindergarten are more likely to be successful throughout their academic careers. And students who attend pre-K are most likely to excel when they begin kindergarten.
Nationally, and in Montgomery County, white students are more likely to attend pre-K and be ready for the first day of kindergarten than their Black and Hispanic peers.
Part of the county’s recent push to create more early childhood education slots has been to make them available to minority students and students in poverty.
“When you look at (Free and Reduced-Priced meal program) rates and you look at this data, the information around a child’s socioeconomic status and their access to quality early care and education is pretty startling,” Navarro said. “This is why this initiative is so important, because we want to level the playing field for all children.”
County leaders, including Elrich, have called early childhood education an “economic imperative.”
On Tuesday, Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard added that early education is “pivotal to the health of our economy.” Parents’ ability to access quality child care will be critical to the economy rebounding from the coronavirus pandemic, Pollard said.
In recent weeks, Smith has reported that MCPS’ enrollment is down about 4,900 students compared to the previous year, and much of the decrease can be attributed to a decline in pre-K enrollment.
He said “we’re extremely concerned” about the pandemic’s potential effect on families’ ability or willingness to enroll in pre-K, and the effect delaying or foregoing early childhood education might have on students’ academic careers.
Navarro added that the county has provided about $30 million to child care providers to help navigate the pandemic.
“I think that there are some connections there for us as we build those initiatives to also begin to reach out and ensure that … families understand it is going to be imperative for those pre-K students to continue to learn and to continue to develop all of these different types of skills so that when school does reopen and children are back, they haven’t fallen behind,” Navarro said. “… We hope to leverage what we are doing right now in crisis mode to then provide that support to those families.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org