Maine applies for federal funds for early childhood education

Posted Oct. 19, 2011, at 1:59 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 19, 2011, at 6:43 p.m.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state is seeking $32.2 million in federal Race to the Top grant funding to improve public and private early childhood education programs in Maine, particularly those serving students with special needs.

Though the grant would be aimed primarily at students who haven’t yet reached kindergarten, the importance of early education programs stretches all the way through a child’s schooling to the Maine work force, said state officials Wednesday.

“Guaranteeing children a solid educational foundation before they begin kindergarten is the first crucial investment we as a state can make in a future work force that will drive economic growth in Maine,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a press release.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the initiatives outlined in the 164-page application submitted this week would build on already robust early childhood education programs including Head Start, private preschools, home-based care and in many Maine schools, pre-kindergarten classes.

“The research proves that children who gain a solid educational foundation in the first five years of life are significantly more likely to be successful in school,” said Bowen.

Maine is one of 30 states that are expected to submit applications for a portion of $500 million that is available through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge program being administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Officials said the money would be spent on one-time infrastructure improvements that would pay dividends for years and not burden taxpayers when the four-year grant expires.

The intent of the application is to move local-, state- and federally funded early childhood education programs toward a system with “a uniform standard of quality and transparency,” according to Maine’s application. The proposals outlined in the application include:

  • Updating learning and development standards for children birth to age 5.
  • Enrolling more early childhood programs into an existing statewide tiered quality rating system and enhancing state databases to include all early care and education programs serving children birth to age 5.
  • Creating a new bachelor’s degree program in the University of Maine System to help educators specialize in teaching children with high needs.

Outside those bureaucratic goals are initiatives that families will notice, such as a public report card system about the quality of early learning programs and installing seat belts in school buses so young children in remote areas have a way to attend preschool.

“We know the research about the value of positive early experiences and brain development,” said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “This grant provides an unprecedented opportunity to apply the research in concrete ways to make a positive difference in the lives of Maine’s children and families.”

The state’s $32.2 million application wouldn’t cover the full cost of the proposals. The remaining $6.9 million would be funded through existing state and federal funding sources.

When the state applied for a different batch of Race to the Top funding in 2010, its application ranked 33rd among 36 states that were in the running at the time, according to Bangor Daily News archives. The failed application was criticized by some for its poor construction, though officials blamed the failure on the fact that Maine’s education program lacked certain things the feds were looking for, such as a charter school program and buy-in from a larger number of local schools.

Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Wednesday that the criteria for this latest application is different from before, though some lessons learned in 2010 have been incorporated.

“I think we’ve put in a more organized and aggressive effort than last time,” said Connerty-Marin. “We’re comfortable that we have a stronger application.”

Also helping Maine is the fact that it already has extensive early learning programs, which will be a key factor in the evaluation of the state’s latest application.

“We have a very strong history in Maine of commitment to early childhood education,” said Connerty-Marin. “We were able to exhibit pretty clearly our past commitments.”

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