It’s welcome news that the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have created a team to advance early childhood education. The formation of the group is not a surprise, as the education department previously said it would move forward with parts of a Race to the Top grant proposal for education reform even though it didn’t win federal funding. But having a cohesive way to develop policies that support children from birth to age 5 is long overdue.
Dubbed the State Agency Interdepartmental Early Learning Team, the group will primarily focus on quality assurance: incorporating public pre-kindergarten programs into an existing rating system, revising early learning curriculum guidelines, solidifying ways to screen and assess children’s language and readiness for kindergarten, examining ways to pool resources, aligning training of personnel and gathering data to track children’s abilities as they move from pre-K through high school.
Focusing on boosting the quality of the state’s patchwork early learning programs and eliminating duplication and inefficiencies should be paired with a wider effort to expand children’s access to care. We — as a company and as parents, siblings, neighbors — cannot emphasize enough the importance of investing in quality preschool, child care and programs that help parents, particularly those living at or near the poverty line, to become stronger caregivers. The long-term results are clear. Maine should not let the chance to reach young children — when it’s so effective to intervene — slide by.
Nearly half of Maine children are raised in low-income families. High poverty rates in some counties and low education rates — just 25 percent of Maine residents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree — make it more difficult to prepare young children for kindergarten. Maine must do more to expand early education opportunities if it doesn’t want its children, particularly those with high needs, to start school behind. Many studies reveal that those who receive nurturing, consistent early childhood education go on to show higher levels of academic achievement, require fewer special education services and are more likely to graduate from high school.
Maine policymakers and educators recognize the value of reaching children early. About 48 percent of Maine’s elementary schools offer public preschool programs now, up from 27 percent in fiscal year 2007, according to the education department. And, in 2009, the department began supporting the funding of early childhood programming with federal Title I dollars, which are directed toward low-income students.
The push toward more and better programs for Maine’s youngest should continue full force. Early childhood education clearly has the backing of Maine’s education commissioner, prominent Maine businesses through the Maine Early Learning Investment Group, police departments, many local governments and agencies and the U.S. Department of Education. Several proposed bills for the 126th Legislature seek to address operations and funding related to early childhood education, but some legislators may still need convincing. Last spring, they cut half of Head Start’s state funding — about 6 percent of its overall funding — resulting in eliminated positions and classrooms. They also cut child care subsidies.
It’s easy to assign blame for many societal problems — whether it’s poverty, low college completion rates or crime. People blame parents because their challenges prevent them from being the mothers and fathers they want to be. People blame teachers for not being able to work magic. But here, with more and better early childhood education, is the means to make a long-term difference. If Maine businesses, legislative leaders, nonprofits, local governments and philanthropists do not speak out as one and devote the resources and energy needed to reach the state’s youngest, they will have no one to blame but themselves.