Both children and our state as a whole benefit when kids have a strong start through early education. As a school superintendent, I regularly hear from kindergarten teachers about the wide diversity of skills they see among their new students in the fall. While many children have had the kinds of early experiences that promote their social and cognitive development, for the kids who haven’t, it is a missed opportunity to ensure their future well-being.
A significant number of children lack the language and literacy skills they need, but they also lack other skills such as the ability to get along with others, to control their emotions, or persist at a task. Unfortunately, many of these same children will struggle with learning to read and the next step, reading to learn, which is crucial to future school and, indeed, life success. Brain research tells us we need to start much earlier in order for all children to be ready to start kindergarten.
Science has shown the early years in a child’s life are the most important time for brain development. Early experiences shape the architecture of a child’s brain, setting the foundation for his or her future. Stable, positive and stimulating interactions with adults enable healthy brain development for young children. Strong brain development provides the building blocks for more advanced skills and improves later school and job success. If a child does not build a strong foundation during the preschool years, it is more difficult and costly to try to make up for it later at school and in the workplace. Early interventions, such as high-quality preschool, remain the most effective way to avoid the need for more difficult interventions during a child’s later years.
Access to high-quality preschool sets children up to thrive in school and enter the workforce as better prepared employees. Research by University of Maine economist Philip Trostel demonstrates that high-quality preschool in Maine would save taxpayers almost $5 for every $1 invested in the program. With high-quality preschool, future special education, welfare and criminal justice costs would go down, and tax revenue would increase because of a better-prepared workforce. Rather than pay more to fix problems down the road, we can make smart investments in proven programs to ensure a better future for our children and our state.
In April, the Maine Legislature enacted LD 1530 to help school districts create and expand high-quality public preschool for 4-year-olds across the state. Beginning in the 2015-16 budget, casino revenues will provide $4 million in start-up grants to school districts that have solid plans to start or expand high-quality public preschool. The law encourages collaboration with private preschool providers. This public-private partnership improves efficiency and utilizes the strengths of existing community resources.
In addition to the expansion at the state level, Maine was just selected as one of 18 states to receive federal funding to boost preschool investment. The U.S. Department of Education announced that Maine will receive $3,497,319 in the first year of a four-year grant that could total almost $15 million. These state and federal commitments are a huge step forward for Maine children.
Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass LD 1530. Members of both parties understand the importance of investing in our youngest citizens, so children can thrive and Maine can prosper.
A wide array of organizations championed public preschool. Advocates included the Maine Children’s Alliance, Maine’s law enforcement through Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, United Ways across the state, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, advocates of Head Start, the Maine Women’s Lobby, and military leaders from Mission Readiness. Supporting Maine’s children is something we all can — and should — get behind, as their success will build the future strength of our state.
As school districts begin to work on their budgets and plan for the next school year, encourage your local school district to support public preschool. Now is the perfect time to reach out to your school board members and superintendent to advocate for the expansion of high-quality public preschool in your community. Ensuring a strong foundation for our children through public preschool will help build a prosperous Maine.
Michael Cormier is the superintendent of schools for the Fayette School Department and is a board member of the Maine Children’s Alliance.