A push for universal pre-k
As I mentioned yesterday and in earlier posts, Dr. Alonso is making the expansion of pre-kindergarten a funding priority for next school year and the years to come, until the system can offer pre-k to all 4-year-olds in the city. This would enable low-income children to come to school better prepared, and it would give middle class families the opportunity to try out the public schools at the time they're most willing to take a chance.
The state's Thornton law now requires school districts to offer half-day pre-k to all low-income children whose parents want it. Baltimore has long gone beyond the requirements in that, in response to parent demand, it offers full-day programs that the state doesn't fund. But it fails to meet the requirements in that 300 children who meet the income criteria are on a wait list. About 4,100 are currently served and the city's total population of 4-year-olds is about 6,500. It's unclear how many would take advantage of pre-k if it were offered to all. What is clear is that the city has never met the public demand for pre-k.
While the holdup, of course, is money, the school system is in luck that pre-kindergarten is a priority for President-elect Obama as well. Obama has pledged another $10 billion for early childhood education nationwide. Baltimore would need to be the beneficiary of only a tiny percentage of that money to turn Alonso's plan into reality. But it's not clear how much would go to public schools and how much would go to pre-k, as opposed to other (worthy) programs for young children and their parents. Obama has said he'd like to see funding for poor children be a priority. It's possible we'll see the money go to other states that aren't as far along as Maryland in providing pre-k.
Given the state budget situation, it might be hard to get very far on this or any other new initiative next year without new federal dollars.