June 20, 2018
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Maine schools get larger subsidies by adding pre-kindergarten classes

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

Faced with plummeting student populations — and therefore less state money — Maine school districts are increasingly adding another year of public education. While reams of research highlight the benefits of early childhood education, there has been no widespread discussion in Maine about the addition of a 14th year of public school.

The explosion in new pre-kindergarten programs statewide has helped ease what had been years of hemorrhaging school enrollments, but data suggest the trend only masks the reality that Maine is still rapidly losing youth.

School systems across the state are rushing to add pre-kindergarten programs for a litany of reasons. One such reason is to inflate enrollment numbers, which are factored into how much in state subsidies each district receives from the Department of Education.

From the 2000-01 school year to 2011-12, the most recent year for which data are available, overall public school populations in Maine fell by nearly 20,000 — from 207,438 to 188,686.

Nearly half of that decline — or 9,297 of the 18,752 students lost since the turn of the century — came within the last four years. Yet over the same four-year period, elementary school numbers have fallen by only 2,313 students, and in the most recent three years, the decline has plateaued.

One reason is the sharp increase in pre-kindergarten programs.

Since 2000-01, the number of students younger than 5 who have been counted in Maine’s public school population has multiplied fourfold, from 1,057 11 years ago to 4,873 during the 2011-12 school year.

“[The addition of a pre-kindergarten program] will produce a higher count than would otherwise be there for that system,” said Jim Rier, Maine’s deputy commissioner of education and the department’s expert on finances. “From my perspective, [pre-kindergarten programs] won’t cause an increase in enrollment statewide, K-12. Student enrollment is still declining. This is just sort of buffering what are otherwise [steeper] enrollment declines.”

According to the most recent list posted by the Maine Department of Education, reflecting the 2010-11 school year, there are 178 public pre-kindergarten sites in the state, with many local school districts running multiple sites.

Of the eight school systems in the state that have bucked the overall trend and added students since 2000-01, only one — Wells-Ogunquit — has done so without adding 4-year-olds to the mix.

And while it’s nearly impossible to isolate the effect that adding 4-year-olds to a school’s population will have on its amount of state aid — many other factors, such as local property values, are taken into account — many districts where early childhood programs have been added have seen increases in their state subsidies. Such subsidies are based, in part, on the number of students in each district.

Of the 73 school systems providing public education for 4-year-olds that could be tracked in the current funding cycle, 45 are due to see increases in state education aid from 2011-12 to 2012-13.

Adding to the enrollment incentive is the state policy that each pre-kindergarten student count as a full student in the school’s population, even if that pre-kindergartner only attends school for half of each day. So if a school enrolled 15 4-year-olds in a morning session and another 15 4-year-olds in an afternoon session, the school would add 30 full students to the population used to calculate its state subsidy, even though the school likely only would need the teachers, space and equipment for 15 students at any given time.

However, Rier said he isn’t aware of any district double-dipping in that manner.

In Orrington, school officials previously told the Bangor Daily News the addition of pre-kindergartners offset population losses in other grades by a 2-to-1 ratio, boosting the district’s funding enough to keep a teacher position they otherwise would have needed to be cut. It also allowed the hire of an additional education technician.

Ed Cervone, executive director of the Maine Development Foundation, a group that monitors school populations and their effects on the economy, said there are many strong reasons for a district to launch a pre-kindergarten program. But simply boosting a district’s population in hopes of staving off state subsidy losses isn’t one of them.

“For some of these schools, especially the rural schools where they’ve seen more significant declines, those extra bodies will help them out with a little more in state subsidies,” Cervone said. “But that shouldn’t be the primary reason for doing it.

“The discussion of pre-K as a means of boosting your [state funding formula] numbers, that can be an added benefit for districts that are experiencing declining enrollments, but that should never be the rationale in our minds for doing it,” he continued. “The rationale for doing it is a cost savings for you over time.”

Cervone said that while an explosion in public school programs for 4-year-olds won’t stem the overall decline in Maine student populations in the long term, skyrocketing pre-kindergarten numbers can help the state deal with rising education costs per child.

Over the same decade in which statewide enrollments fell by nearly 20,000 students, the state’s cost per pupil rose by nearly a third — from $6,640 in 2000-01 to $9,630 in 2010-11. In short, Maine is paying more to educate fewer students.

Cervone said studies indicate that pre-kindergarten programs are key to getting per-student costs under control over the long term.

“Kids who get a good education earlier in their life are a lot less likely to need remediation or special education services, and that’s an increasing cost,” he said.

A variety of reports over time have found that investments in early education programs, such as pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, pay significant financial returns down the road. Studies on the subject have claimed that each $1 spent on early childhood education generates anywhere from $4 to $16 in savings in the future, Cervone said.

“From society’s standpoint, if you’re dealing with those kids from birth to [age] 5, they’re going to be less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, they’re going to be less likely to need social services, and they’re going to be more likely to get a steady job with a livable wage,” he said. “You don’t realize it overnight, but over time, you’ll start seeing that [investment] coming back to you. Particularly, with Maine populations on the decline, you’ve got to do more with what you’ve got. Any way you can stack the deck in kids’ favor, that’s just another way of managing a small resource pool.”

The longer-term payoff is what motivates Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, one of many systems in the state ramping up toward what ultimately will be a universal pre-K program in the five-town district.

This year year, RSU 1 has 96 pre-kindergartners counted in its population, and district finance director Ruth Moore said the new grade level is responsible for about $100,000 worth of the system’s $1.4 million increase in state aid from the previous year to this one.

But she said the pre-K offerings account for nearly $214,000 in district spending, and that doesn’t include another $50,000 in grant money the system sought to help fund the program. So while the additional students boost state aid, the system launched the program more with Cervone’s data in mind than in search of subsidy increases, Superintendent Patrick Manuel said.

“It’s maybe hard [to rationalize the additional spending] in some cases, because you want to see the immediate impact of a new program, like a new [Advanced Placement] class or a new vocational class,” Manuel said. “Pre-K is a longer term investment … but the research really indicates that the earlier we can get them, the better.”

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