*Note* I write the following as the only Democratic candidate in Southeast Baltimore who has children in school, the only one who serves in a leadership capacity in any of our local schools, one who has participated in the 21st-century school process here in Southeast Baltimore, and one who has engaged with the current debate around funding for charter and traditional schools by actually showing up to the relevant public events and City Council hearings. I also write the following as a strong supporter of early childhood education who can not only speak about it but who has joined with a group of neighbors to create a new early childhood center in Highlandtown (construction going on now!).
Universal pre-kindergarten is a worthy issue for a gubernatorial or a presidential campaign. The benefits of pre-kindergarten education, especially for ELL students and students living in poverty, are quite high. For every dollar invested in early childhood education, there are seven dollars of economic improvement between higher incomes for the students and lower expenses for society as the students grow up. One year of pre-kindergarten means an eleven-month jump in readiness for further education for children in poverty enter kindergarten. It also provides a seven-month head start for middle class students. In 2014, I was proud to vote in favor of two Democratic candidates for governor who advocated for some form of expanded or universal pre-kindergarten. I look forward to working with future pro-education governors, mayors, and members of the General Assembly to make sure that all of our children, especially those living in poverty or learning English for the first time, are well-prepared for success in school and in life.
At the same time, candidates pushing for universal public tuition-free pre-kindergarten ought to have some proposal for how to make the idea work in a fiscal and practical way. They also ought to have some honest political proposal for how to achieve this goal given the limitations of the office that they are seeking.
Let’s examine the fiscal and practical aspects of universal pre-kindergarten not only in Southeast Baltimore but also Baltimore as a whole, before turning briefly to the political aspects.
1) Practical Reality: Overcrowding in Southeast Baltimore Schools
In 2015, elementary and middle schools in Southeast Baltimore had 6482 students in buildings with a capacity of 5501 students: 18% overcrowded on average, with some schools as high as 83% overcrowded. A very conservative estimate for the number of unserved pre-kindergarten students who would enter our schools under a universal pre-k model is 240, further straining our already overcrowded schools. In short, there is no physical space in our buildings to teach these students. Any proposal for universal pre-kindergarten that does not account for the need for new construction of pre-kindergarten classrooms and structures to house them is no real proposal at all.
2) Fiscal Reality: Adding Services While Losing Resources
In 2015, city schools faced a budget deficit of $105 million. State aid to Baltimore City schools was cut by $36 million. In 2016, state aid is again going to be cut to Baltimore City schools in the amount of $26 million. Pre-kindergarten has mandated class size limits–not exceeding 23 students. It also has unique needs in terms of classroom design. As such, the cost to build a new pre-school classroom is on the order of $500,000, and the annual cost for staff alone (one teacher and one paraprofessional) is $140,000 per classroom. In Southeast Baltimore alone, that would be a construction cost of $5.5 million and an annual cost of $1.54 million. Extended across the entire city, we would have to find more than $20,000,000 each year just to cover the staffing costs of those classrooms not including supplies, utilities, and construction costs. Any proposal for universal pre-kindergarten that does not account for the associated construction and staffing costs is no real proposal at all.
Furthermore, those who stand most to benefit from pre-kindergarten instruction, children living in poverty, already have access to it in Baltimore. That access helps them partially catch up with more privileged children when it comes to kindergarten readiness. The only children currently left out of pre-kindergarten here in Baltimore are children of means. It would be a great benefit to those students to get an extra year of free education, and a great benefit to those parents not to have to provide private early childhood education through the age-four year.
The important ethical and policy question is whether we ought to be spending tens of millions of dollars annually on free early childhood education for middle-class families when we have first grade classrooms with 35 children to one teacher and we have a 74% high school graduation rate (and only a 10% six year college–associates or bachelors–graduation rate) for students who entered 9th grade together.
Budgeting is about tough choices. I’d propose that $20,000,000+ annually would be better spent expanding our Community Schools initiative so that our at-risk students have greater support and opportunity throughout their school careers once they have gotten off to a strong start with pre-kindergarten.
3) Political Reality
City Council members only have the authority to cut from the city budget, not add anything to it. Thus, the only way that any sort of initiative can move forward, especially an expensive one like universal pre-kindergarten, is with the support of the mayor. Moreover, even the mayor is limited in this regard because control of the city schools budget rests with the appointed members of the city school board, not with the mayor.
Thus, a City Council member promising universal pre-kindergarten would need to somehow have a supportive mayor, school board, and schools CEO. Even that, though, would not be enough. The funding necessary to build and renovate new pre-school classrooms, and provide for the staffing, supplies, and utilities for those classrooms, is beyond the current fiscal capacity of our school system or city government to afford. Such funding would have to come from Annapolis through the actions of an education-minded and Baltimore-loving governor and an enthusiastic General Assembly. We all can hope and work hard to achieve a perfect set of conditions which will allow universal pre-kindergarten to move forward, but we are at least three years off. Any proposal for universal pre-kindergarten that does not account for the political challenges of achieving this goal is no real proposal at all.
Universal pre-kindergarten is an important policy goal which we should try to achieve on a state-wide level through the good legislative work of the General Assembly and in cooperation with an education-friendly governor. Expanding pre-kindergarten availability to middle-class families will help make city living more affordable for those families and will encourage more families to remain in the community through the school years. It’s important to acknowledge the practical and political challenges even as we make this a long-term priority.
The attached document digs a bit into the overcrowding and funding data.