AUGUSTA, Maine — As the state’s educators continue to expand their focus on early childhood programs, a national research group has found that Maine is lagging on the amount of money devoted to them.
In a study released last week, the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University ranked Maine 18th out of the 38 states that fund preschool education. According to the study, Maine spends $1,686 per child, compared with the national average of $4,061 per child spent in 2007-08.
That finding, however, fails to provide an accurate picture of the state’s commitment, according to a state official, because it fails to take into account the amount of money applied to what the Department of Education calls its Four Year Old Program from local and federal sources.
Jaci Holmes, the department’s federal and state legislative liaison, said those additional resources bring the financial support for the state’s early childhood programs in line with the national average.
“They looked only at the state portion, not the local portion. It does not fully portray the amount that districts are spending for their programs,” Holmes said of the NIEER report Friday. “It’s not showing the full rate of expenditure per child.”
Holmes said the Four Year Old Program was instituted five years ago. Since then, the initial 20 programs have grown to 130. She said federal and state officials have scheduled a conference next month for school districts that want to start programs in their communities. Holmes said an additional 25 districts are expected to have early childhood programs in place next fall.
“We’re going to explain how to establish a program and how you might fund it,” she said.
While participation is optional, school districts choosing to provide public pre-kindergarten must receive approval from the department, which includes a planning process that incorporates collaboration with local providers such as nursery schools or Head Start, a federal program, she said.
Holmes said stimulus funds from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be used to fund those new programs for the first two years. After that, the state will contribute funding under its general-purpose aid. About 19 percent of the 4-year-old population is enrolled now in early childhood programs. When a minimum of 10 hours a week of programming is offered, districts are eligible to receive a full per-pupil subsidy.
The National Institute for Early Education Research 2008 State Preschool Yearbook found that Maine met five of the 10 benchmarks on its quality standards checklist. The state was credited with having comprehensive programs staffed by certified teachers specialized in pre-K methods. The benchmarks missed dealt with class size, staff-to-child ratio, vision, hearing and developmental screening, and providing meals. NIEER’s standards require classes of 20 pupils or fewer and a staff ratio of 1:10 or better.
Holmes said that state regulations do not require those benchmarks but that the department was in the process of adding some of them into its rules later this year, including a provision for meals.
“With any national protocol or rating system they sometimes have certain elements included that you are not doing and don’t include others that you are,” Holmes said.