By the Maine Legislature House Democratic Office
AUGUSTA, Maine — This year’s legislative session yielded high results with initiatives to improve Maine education, from laws to feed hungry students and improve early education to extending financial aid for higher education. These laws went into effect Aug. 1.
One law will help feed hungry students by increasing participation in the federal Summer Food Services Program.
“If we as a state can’t feed our students, what does that say about us?” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, a retired Bangor school teacher and a member of the Education Committee. “This law not only does good by providing a way to feed the hungry in Maine, it also makes a statement about where our priorities lie when it comes to education in our state.”
More than 84,000 Maine children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program, but only 14,000 have access to a summer food program.
The measure requires eligible schools (schools with more than half of their students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches that hold summer activities) take advantage of the Summer Food Services Program, a federal program administered by the USDA. The federal program reimburses school districts for 100 percent of the cost of food for a summer food program, and schools can opt out of the program if they cannot find a partner organization such as a church, civic organization, nonprofit, or other school or if the cost is too great.
Earlier this year, Kornfield was tapped to co-chair a task force to investigate student hunger in Maine.
A law to expand early childhood education in Maine, also went into effect on Friday.
“The formative years of a person’s life are the most important when it comes to developing how that individual will learn throughout the rest of his or her life,” said Kornfield. “That’s why investment in early childhood education is not only smart, it’s imperative.”
Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, the co-chair of the task force, sponsored both student hunger measures.
Currently, there are 172 School Administrative Units in the state with elementary schools, but only 60 percent of these schools offer some kind of pre-K.
The law makes casino revenues available as startup funding to school districts who want to offer a voluntary pre-K program and establishes a stakeholder group to develop quality standards, best practices and common assessments.
Another law now in effect will increase access to quality child care in Maine. The measure, sponsored by House Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, provides quality child care providers a modest, merit-based pay raise.
The state’s quality rating system considers staff training, facility conditions and programming strength. The law increases the duration of the current quality incentive by using federal Child Care Development Funds and will have no impact on the state’s General Fund.
Maine will also be the first state in the nation to support foster children with higher education through the age of 26.
The law, also introduced by Berry, allows former foster children to receive guidance and financial help with higher education expenses averaging $5,000 a year until they reach the age of 27. At present, Maine provides no support or guidance beyond age 20. The bill leverages one private foundation dollar for every two public dollars and will support up to 40 young Mainers at a given time.