EDITORIALS

Maine’s toddler scandal continues — yet, does anyone care?

Dawn Sparks Photography | The Bump/MCT
Posted Oct. 27, 2013, at 11:54 a.m.

It seems each time government proposes cuts, it takes aim at toddlers.

In the spring of 2012, the Republican-led Maine Legislature cut $2 million from Head Start, resulting in classroom closures and slashed enrollment openings. This year, the Democratic-led Legislature returned $1.3 million for 2014, but the federal sequester resulted in an immediate loss for Maine of $1.6 million.

That funding cut meant 360 Maine children lost their educational services; 22 classrooms closed; and 86 Head Start workers lost their jobs.

Now the governor’s Office of Policy Management is recommending cutting $448,875 from Head Start in fiscal year 2015. The two-year budget that took effect July 1 charged that office, led by former state Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, to find savings of at least $33.8 million. The office found $35.5 million.

The proposal is worrying for a number of reasons. We know the office didn’t have the time or directive to make strategic decisions, such as how to align cuts to a long-term vision for state government. But what about basic priorities?

Quality early childhood education has been shown to reduce the need for special education, reduce incarceration rates, improve high school graduation rates and increase lifetime earnings. So why — in the face of Maine having the third-highest percentage of students in special education and the second highest rate of spending per prisoner in the nation — would the state consider cutting early childhood learning programs?

It should be focusing instead on how to better Head Start, to expand access, improve the quality and uniformity of services and increase the total of top-rated centers. It’s currently serving only 30 percent of eligible families. The need is great, especially for low-income moms and dads who work.

Recent research by Stanford psychologists shows just how stark the difference in language skills can be between children from low- versus high-income families. The U.S. has known for a long time that 5-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status often start school more than two years behind. The new research shows the differences emerge even earlier: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency,” the study finds.

That’s scary news for a state with nearly half its children being raised in low-income households. Yet, getting at-risk children ready for kindergarten is Head Start’s mission. It has a proven “statistically significant impact” on language and literacy development.

In addition to sticking to basic priorities, wouldn’t you want to let the experts finish their examination of the funding issue before recommending cuts of any sort? The Maine Children’s Growth Council’s sustainability committee is still in the process of reviewing 46 early learning programs to see where they get their funding, how much the funding is, what ages are served and where the programs are, to better understand whether opportunities exist to pool resources.

If there’s a way to deliver early childhood services more efficiently, that’s great news. But the report isn’t supposed to be done until December. Any cuts should be thoughtful and deliberate.

Head Start has, frustratingly, too often become the center of political battles and ideological bickering. Opponents allege Head Start doesn’t work at all, and they point to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report that states the effects of Head Start dissipate by third grade.

First, Head Start does work in that it unequivocally prepares children for kindergarten.

The reason for the dissipation of its effects is the source of wide speculation. W. Steven Barnett, at Rutgers, for instance, has written about public schools investing heavily in kindergarten to “catch up” those farthest behind, erasing some of the gains made clear by Head Start. In addition, the DHHS study describes the positive effects of Head Start showing up later in adulthood, such as through increased earnings and crime reduction. Those “sleeper” effects may come about because Head Start participants’ improved socialization results in a later payoff.

Head Start — and all of Maine’s early learning programs — can be improved. But it’s far more difficult to have a reasoned debate about making the program better when it’s consistently under attack.

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