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Charlonda James, owner of Holabird Early Learning Center, says it’s difficult for private operators to meet state standards for accreditation. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Pre-K plan alarms day care operators

Maryland’s 4-year-olds aren’t the only ones who should care about the state’s expansion of pre-kindergarten this year. Private-sector child care providers also need to pay attention, or risk being squeezed out of business.

Several such providers, such as owners of small day care centers, said they worry it will be tougher to attract paying families once more seats open up in free, public programs. That might be true for some providers, but it’s not that simple, state officials said.

In fact, public-private partnerships are the foundation of the new law, which sets aside $4.3 million to provide free pre-K for about 1,600 more low-income kids this fall.

That funding will be distributed as grants to local school districts and to private providers that meet a variety of criteria and quality standards. The providers will use the money to establish or expand a pre-K program (either full- or half-day) that meets state standards and can accommodate at least 20 extra 4-year-olds.

The Maryland State Department of Education announced Wednesday it has begun accepting applications, but many of the licensed child care providers in Maryland are not eligible to apply — at least, not yet.

Holabird Early Learning Center in Dundalk, for example, which caters to low-income children, is not yet accredited by a state or federal agency, so owner Charlonda James can’t apply for a grant until she takes that step.

Of the roughly 2,500 licensed child care centers in Maryland, about 1,000 are accredited, according to Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent of MSDE’s Division of Early Childhood Development.

That doesn’t include the 7,500 family-based day care centers, he said, which can apply for a grant if they form a network with other providers. Then there are the private preschools, which can apply if they have been approved by MSDE.

Grafwallner said the goal is not to exclude private providers like James, but rather to encourage them to align their curricula with that of public pre-K programs and strive toward higher quality. It also ensures state funds only go to top-tier providers, he said.

“If a program wants to continue serving 4-years-olds, we want to make sure they meet high quality standards,” Grafwallner said. “If they do meet them, it’s a win-win for the program, for the family and for the state, because families will come to Maryland if they can expect to get a quality education for their children.”

James, who ran a day care in her home for 10 years before opening the center, said she constantly works to improve her offerings but that it can be expensive to implement everything that’s required for accreditation.

She recently enrolled in a program called Maryland EXCELS, a quality-rating and improvement system for child care centers and pre-K programs. But so far, she’s only reached Level 1; providers must be in Level 5 to apply for a Pre-K Expansion Grant.

Grafwallner said the state offers incentives for providers to continue moving through the EXCELS program toward accreditation, such as helping them pay to purchase curriculum packages.

“We’re hoping the incentives will eventually get us to the point where more and more programs take that step,” he said. “Because eventually there’s a plan to scale this up toward universal public pre-K.”

Maryland already provides free pre-K to children from families with an income at or below 185 percent of the poverty level, but this year’s legislation expanded eligibility. Children from families earning 300 percent of the poverty level (about $71,550 for a family of four) are now eligible.

The adverse impact of pre-K expansion on private businesses will likely be minor for now, but it will become more significant if Maryland continues to fund more public programs, said Tracy Jost, president of the Maryland Association for the Education of Young Children and owner of Kid’s Campus Early Learning Center, in Calvert County.

“It also depends on where your program is located — if you serve low-income kids, you might see an effect sooner,” Jost said.

“My center serves median income to higher income, so I don’t think I’ll see an impact in the first few years. But it’s something to watch — I might seek to apply for the grant myself.”

Applications are due to MSDE by June 11. Awards will be announced in July.