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Investments in early education pay off

Posted Aug. 31, 2014, at 4:37 p.m.

As children get ready to head back to the classroom, let’s remember one of the best ways to help them succeed during their school years and beyond: quality early education.

The earliest years of childhood are crucial. It is when the brain is the most active, forming connections and building a foundation that will have profound implications for a child’s future. This is a critical period that shapes a child’s chances for success in school, the workplace and in other areas of life. It not only is a time that sets the course for the development of language skills and higher cognitive functions, but it also is a time where investment provides significant returns for both the child and community.

Quality early learning helps children thrive. Research shows that early education makes a significant difference in rates of high school graduation, labor force participation and earnings.

These facts are recognized not just by educators but also by business leaders, the law enforcement community and retired members of the military brass. They see that these kinds of investments make a difference for the workforce, crime prevention strategies and readiness to serve in the armed forces. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce notes that early learning programs helps children develop the skills needed by Maine businesses — both the “hard” skills of reading, writing and math and the “soft” ones of communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

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Taxpayers benefit as well. According to a University of Maine study, quality preschool education for a low-income child saves $125,000 over the child’s lifetime. That’s more than five times the initial investment.

Head Start and quality child care are two key early education programs in Maine that deserve our support.

Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood program that improves school readiness, health and educational achievement. In Head Start, which serves 3- to 5-year-olds, the child-to-staff ratio is no higher than 10-to-1. For Early Head Start, which serves newborns through 2-year-olds, the ratio is 4-to-1.

Studies of Head Start children reveal that they score higher on cognitive development assessments, have larger vocabularies and more developed social and emotional skills. They graduate at better rates and are less likely to repeat a grade, require special education services or be charged with a crime.

In Maine, Head Start programs serve more than 3,000 at-risk children from birth to the age of 5. Its efforts in Maine suffered a blow when the state cut funding by $2 million in 2012. As a result, 226 families lost access to the program.

A partial restoration of Head Start funds was included in the budget crafted by the Legislature. It’s an acknowledgement that we need to invest in the future of young Mainers and our state.

In 2012, Maine also cut $1.9 million in state funding used to match available federal Child Care Development Fund dollars. Maine lost access to more than $3 million of these federal funds, an overall cut of $5 million. The result? A wait list for vouchers that help parents work or attend school to improve their families situations and lost early learning opportunities for their children.

The restored Head Start funds have allowed Maine to draw down federal funding and the number of vouchers has been increased, but Maine’s child care system is still struggling to recover from the 2012 cuts.

We took an important step this year for Maine’s children, families and communities by improving Head Start funding. Let’s keep the momentum going.

Aaron Frey is a first-term member of the Maine House of Representatives who serves on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. He represents parts of Bangor and Orono and the town of Veazie.

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