What’s the Deal with Pre-K Funding in Maryland?

Earlier this month, U.S. Department of Education awarded Maryland a $15 million Preschool Development Grant. This award recognizes Maryland’s history of leadership in providing quality preschool for low-income students — but it could also increase the complexity and fragmentation of the state’s preschool funding landscape.

And Maryland’s pre-k funding structure is complex enough as it is. Unlike any other state, for the past twelve years Maryland has required districts to offer pre-k through the Bridge to Excellence Act (BTE), but it doesn’t have a dedicated pre-k funding stream to fund that requirement. Through BTE, the state completely revised its school finance structure and increased state aid to public schools by $1.3 billion over six years. In return, districts had to provide fullday kindergarten and at least half-day pre-k for students from families with income levels at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

Because of the structure of the BTE formula, districts that had the most low-income kids to serve got the biggest funding increases. The new formula distributed 74 percent of the additional state aid inverse to local wealth, so less affluent districts received more aid than more affluent districts. Each school district received a base amount and additional funds based on the number of students who receive special education services, who have limited English proficiency, and who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.

From the state perspective, the additional state aid should cover the cost of the pre-k requirement. From a district perspective, pre-k is an unfunded mandate: there’s no distinct, dedicated funding stream for pre-k, as exists in many other states. Maryland districts pay for pre-k out of their general state aid pot.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Maryland passed the Preschool Expansion Act, which created a completely different pre-k initiative. Preschool Expansion is a $4.3 million competitive grant program for children up to 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Now the federal Preschool Development Grant will fund another pre-k initiative for students up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That’s three different pre-k initiatives for three different, but overlapping, student populations.

To be sure, additional pre-k money is good news for Maryland students. And yet, Maryland students (and parents, and schools) deserve some reassurance that there’s a coherent strategy in place. Neither the Preschool Expansion Act nor the Preschool Development Grant directly supports the existing pre-k structure in Maryland. Instead, the state piled on two new initiatives right on top of BTE, which was already the third effort since 1980. The result is a fragmented array of pre-k funding options, none of which perfectly align in services, providers, or priorities.

Maryland isn’t alone in this complex pre-k funding system. Louisiana and New Jersey, also Preschool Development Grant winners, have at least three different, concurrently operating pre-k funding streams that tend to merge and separate over time. State policymakers often have political or pragmatic reasons to create multiple pre-k funding streams – but the result falls short of a cohesive strategy and instead leaves a confused pre-k landscape that is harder to navigate, harder to manage, and harder to sell.