May 29, 2013

Early childhood education gets new push at State House

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Business leaders and children's advocates gathered at the State House Wednesday to urge state officials to make a greater public investment in early childhood education and development programs, citing a new report that details the benefits.

click image to enlarge

Karen Mayo, a fifth-grade teacher at the James H. Bean School in Sidney helps two students Jade Veillaux, 11, right, and Macey Eubank, 10, left. James H. Bean is one school in the area that has implemented a mass customized learning program that integrates up to three grade levels in one classroom.

Staff photo/Michael G. Seamans

In the Legislature, however, supporters of such programs are fighting to get back to a funding level from two years ago, and a bill to establish universal public pre-kindergarten in Maine has been put on hold until next year.

Maine Children's Alliance, Maine Children's Growth Council and the Maine Early Learning Investment Group organized Wednesday to highlight the findings of a University of Maine economist who studied the potential fiscal benefits of a comprehensive early care and education system for low-income children from birth to age 4.

"It proves what a great investment early childhood investments are," said Jim Clair, CEO of Goold Health Systems and co-chairman of the Maine Early Learning Investment Group. "He came back and said it generated a 7.5 percent return on investment, which is an excellent investment."

Clair said he and the other business leaders in the early learning group will use the study results to raise private support for early childhood education while also trying to convince policymakers that creating such programs are a public responsibility and will benefit the whole state.

Philip Trostel, a professor at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the School of Economics at the University of Maine, used research on the outcomes of early childhood education programs elsewhere to envision a hypothetical system in Maine.

Trostel said funding for the study was raised by Steven Rowe, a former Democratic legislator and attorney general. Donors included nonprofit groups such as the Maine Community Foundation, businesses including Bangor Savings Bank and Hancock Lumber, and several individuals.

The voluntary system for low-income children would cost Maine $154 million per year more than the $99 million the state spent in 2011 on pre-kindergarten, Head Start, home visiting, childcare subsidies and other services that would be part of the hypothetical system. Trostel said he does not know of any state with a coordinated, publicly funded birth-to-4 system of the sort envisioned in the study.

According to Trostel's study, the system would produce a net fiscal benefit of about $100,000 per child served. The state and federal governments would save money on child protection, special education, public assistance and law enforcement, Trostel said, and the children would earn more money as adults, thus paying more in taxes.

Trostel calculated a 7.5 percent return on investment for federal spending -- which goes to support programs such as Head Start and child care subsidies -- and 3.1 percent for state spending.

The initial investment would be recouped by the time a child turns 14, Trostel said. He said the benefits would be not only financial, but also in improving quality of life for the children served.

His report also noted obstacles for a comprehensive early care and education system, such as the initial investment required and working out the specific details such as eligibility, funding, and coordination among providers.

Trostel said he's hopeful the study will advance the discussion about how to accomplish that.

"The momentum is building, and I'm hoping that this report will kick-start things even more in Maine," he said. "For anything to really be done, it needs to become almost common knowledge among the general public that early childhood education is a great idea."

In 2011, Maine failed to secure federal funding from the Race to the Top initiative to expand access to and improve the quality of early education and development programs, but the failed application produced a state work group that is addressing some initiatives.

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