By Karen Paikin Barall
As Gov. Martin O’Malley has reminded us, “Progress is a choice, and we have important work to accomplish this year.” From a communal perspective, O’Malley’s proposal to expand pre-K across the state, currently being championed in the legislature by Lt. Gov. Brown and sponsored by many of the Jewish community’s key representatives in Annapolis, meets the needs of the community.
The bill does this in two key ways. First, it explicitly allows private and nonpublic providers to have the same opportunity to access these grants as public school districts. This means those looking to provide a pre-K option but also looking to do so in a way that meets their values now have a truly viable option, even if they are making only a moderate income.
And, dealing with the issue of affordability head-on, the bill shows a key understanding that even a healthy income for a family of a certain size can make paying for pre-K too difficult. So this legislation expands eligibility to those families making 300 percent of the poverty level. For a family with three children, that translates into over $80,000 year, and for a family of four children, the income limit is 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 can now provide pre-K for their children and it means as well 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 IQ’s, 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.” Yes, 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, then, from a policy standpoint, and on political principle, an easy sell to the Jewish community. We are an 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 here in the Capital region, as well as 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. For all these reasons, this is a priority issue for the Orthodox Union in Annapolis this year. We believe it should be a priority for every civic group, elected official and community as well. And we look forward to working with them to see it enacted.
Karen Paikin Barall is mid-Atlantic director of the Orthodox Union.