PORTLAND, Maine — Education is an integral aspect of workforce development in the state, but often the conversation tackles the roles of K-12 and higher education and misses a key component: early childhood education.
That needs to change, according to a recent report from America’s Edge, a national think tank with an office in Topsham.
Early education is “part and parcel of the same debate,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
The report — titled “Boosting Maine’s Economy: Short- and long-term economic gains through quality early learning” — maintains that investing in early childhood education not only has strong long-term payoffs, but short-term economic advantages as well.
Every $1 invested in early childhood education translates to $1.78 in spending in local communities, according to Kim Gore, Maine state director for America’s Edge.
People often don’t think of early childhood education as an economic sector, but it’s substantial in size, employing more than 10,000 Mainers, Gore said. According to the report, Maine is home to an estimated 706 child care centers, 1,415 licensed family child care homes and 111 nursery schools.
“So the economic activity generated from that investment is pretty substantial,” she said. “It compares better than some of the more traditional industries in Maine.”
In 2011, Maine invested $28.2 million in early learning programs, which in turn generated an additional $22 million in economic activity, for a total of $50 million, according to the report.
Beyond the direct short-term economic impact, the long-term advantages are clear, Gore said.
“From a long-term perspective, high-quality early learning programs can save as much as $16 for every $1 invested because children who participate in these programs grow up to become better-educated and more productive workers, with far less remedial education or criminal costs to society,” Eileen Skinner, CEO of Mercy Health System of Maine, said in the report. “That is a return on investment that cannot be matched by almost any other public investment.”
Maine’s business community has taken notice of the importance of investing in early childhood education, according to Connors.
“The numbers are very persuasive, the statistics are incredibly strong, and they support the idea that we really in so many ways start our quality education too late,” Connors told the Bangor Daily News. “We need to begin earlier, essentially almost at birth, because it’s in the first three to five years that 85 percent of a person’s brain had developed.”
Connors said he expects to see a focus on this issue in the coming legislative session.
In January 2012, several companies, including Bath Iron Works, Bangor Savings Bank and Hannaford, formed the Maine Early Learning Investment Group to focus on increasing investment in early childhood education.