In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Martin O’Malley reminded us that “progress is a choice, and we have important work to accomplish this year.”
From a communal perspective, O’Malley’s proposal to expand pre-kindergarten across the state is being championed in the legislature by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and by many of the Jewish community’s key representatives in Annapolis.
Their bill expands this educational service in two key ways: first, by explicitly allowing private and nonpublic providers to have the same opportunity to access the same grants as public school districts. This means that those looking to provide a pre-K option for their children, but also looking to do so in a way that meets their values, would now have a truly viable option even if they were making only a moderate income.
But dealing with the issue of affordability head on, the bill also shows a key understanding that even a healthy income for a family of a certain size can make paying for pre-K too difficult. The legislation expands eligibility to those families making 300 percent of the poverty level. For a family with three children, that translates into more than $80,000 per year; for a family with four children, the income limit would be almost $95,000.
These two provisions are essential in allowing the entire Jewish community to have a real stake in seeing this legislation passed and a real opportunity to benefit from the program once enacted.
It means many young families in the community would be able to provide pre-K for their children, and it means that many synagogues, JCCs and schools can offer their pre-K services to an increasing number of families.
For a community still coming to terms with the latest studies on Jewish communal engagement and the financial difficulties young families face regarding the cost of participating in meaningful Jewish experiences, this is a modest way to open access across denominational lines and at a more welcoming price point.
And of course, for a community so steeped in social justice and the need to help others, this bill is a win for Marylanders of all faiths. Study after study suggests that pre-K yields lasting benefits well into adulthood. Pre-K participants are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to end up incarcerated, have higher IQs and end up earning more — even decades later — than those without.
That is something that, as concerned citizens, our community should support. After all, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis noted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” It matters to raise “your” children, of course, but we should maintain that level of concern for everyone’s families.
Expanding pre-K to more children should be, from a policy standpoint and on political principle, an easy sell to the Jewish community. We arean especially child-centric culture, where the well-being and success of children is a given. A deeply held Jewish value teaches it is better to help someone learn or earn their way out of poverty than to offer a straight handout.
It should also be a position we take because it helps our neighbors of any — and of no — faith. For families in the Capital region and for those in Baltimore, and indeed across the state, this legislation is a critical first step in expanding real access, providing for real needs and meeting a key desire of Jewish families.
Karen Paikin Barall is mid-Atlantic director for the Orthodox Union.