Preparing our students to be skilled and competitive in a global economy is probably the best leverage we have for ensuring a sound future for the state of Maine.
We all recognize that the world we live in is rapidly changing, and we understand that we must prepare our young people for the challenges ahead. This concern for the future has sparked a renewed emphasis on early education, not only from citizens, but from scientists and economists, as well.
As a kindergarten teacher, I see the difference in students who have had high-quality early education experiences — namely, those who have been in stimulating, language-rich, developmentally appropriate environments that provide children with a lot of back-and-forth interaction with professional teachers and staff members.
It is no surprise that these students tend to outperform their peers in typical school readiness indicators, such as literacy and numeracy, but they also have a jump on what are commonly called “soft skills,” such as following instructions well, communicating well, cooperating with others.
Employers often talk about how these soft skills make a big difference in the workplace. Given that we know the foundation of these important skills is formed in early childhood, it’s important not only to our children, but to the future of our state, to ensure our kids have the strongest foundations possible.
When we do not attend to children’s developmental needs early in their lives, there can be serious consequences later. Trying to change behavior or build new skills on a fragile foundation requires a lot more resources and is less effective than getting it right to begin with. Remedial education and other professional interventions are simply more costly and produce far less positive outcomes than providing appropriate learning experiences early in a child’s life.
I know that waiting until kindergarten to make sure all children in Maine have access to skilled teachers is just too late for many kids. We would be much better off ensuring all children, in every community in our state, have access to quality early education experiences, regardless of their family’s income.
The fact is that quality preschool programs for young children are simply not equally distributed across all communities in our state. So while approximately 60 percent of school districts offer at least one preschool classroom, they are only reaching approximately 40 percent of the four-year-olds in Maine.
And when some communities are denied the resources they need, we all suffer. If we were able to ensure access fairly, across all communities — rural, poor, or not — we would be making an investment in our future known to have a high rate of return.
That is what we could achieve with support of LD 1530, a proposal overwhelmingly supported by the Legislature to help create and expand voluntary preschool in Maine. The legislation would provide much needed start-up funds for local school districts so they can begin to set up programs in many of the communities that have no access to preschool.
This proposal is the result of more than a year of work by the members of the Legislature’s Education Committee and the commissioner and staff at the Maine Department of Education, who worked in a bipartisan fashion to craft this workable compromise.
I thank them for their understanding, diligence and commitment to seeing that Maine’s youngest learners are given the best possible start on their road to success. It is my hope that Gov. Paul LePage will honor this work and sign this worthy proposal into law. If not, I ask all legislators to override his veto and put our youngest people before politics.
Access to early childhood preschool programs with high standards, which this bill requires, would be an enormous benefit not only to children and families, but to the future of Maine.
More of Maine’s children must have a better chance of being ready for school. It is an important investment for our children and for our communities, as they are our future.
Beth Heidemann has taught kindergarten at the Cushing Community School for 20 years, acting as a leader within the school and as a liaison to the community. She is a graduate of the College of the Atlantic and a National Board-certified early childhood teacher.