If Maine wants to improve its economy and decrease the number of people living in poverty, it should invest in something that will draw a return: its children. Providing early childhood programs for low-income working families benefits not just children and parents but ultimately their communities.
It’s unfortunate that the Maine Legislature cut funding this spring for child care programs like Head Start, which is a federally and state funded provider of education services for at-risk children ages 0 to 5. The effects are already being felt, as child care professional positions are eliminated and enrollment openings slashed. It’s estimated 200-250 children will be pushed out of the program.
But the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage can learn from their mistakes. They should restore funding when they develop the next state budget.
More than restore the $2 million — which represented nearly half of Head Start’s state funding and 6 percent of its overall funding — the state has the ability to make the program great. It has the power to reduce the number of children on waiting lists and grow its Early Head Start programs that serve children prenatal to three years old, which is when the foundation is built for lifelong learning.
There are many reasons why Head Start and similar programs should be expanded. It allows parents — 70 percent of whom are working or in school — to maintain their livelihoods. It permits them to save money and be more productive.
Head Start provides for vulnerable populations. In 2009-10, almost 20 percent of Maine children enrolled in Head Start had a diagnosed disability. And service to homeless families has increased, from 269 homeless families in 2009 to 370 in 2010.
Community members demonstrate their commitment to the program through their volunteer hours and donations. More than 5,835 people volunteered at Maine Head Start programs in the 2009-10 school year. That’s more than the number of children, which reached 3,819. All programs must generate a local match of 25 percent to their federal grant money, which is done through donations and in-kind contributions.
There are long-term benefits. Education economics professor W. Steven Barnett and human development professor Jason Hustedt have examined the body of research on the effectiveness of Head Start. Though more could be known about the full range of benefits, they determined, quality studies show that the program aids educational achievement, future employment and social behavior. Head Start helps ready children for kindergarten, and at least some of the educational benefits are sustained over time.
Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have the right idea when they say they want to focus on programs that help individual students succeed. Cuts to Head Start don’t help them fulfill their goals. If the state wants to improve academic achievement and help build a more productive, educated workforce, part of the solution involves investing in toddlers.