PORTLAND, Maine — Companies such as Bath Iron Works and Hannaford are part of a newly launched Maine Early Learning Investment Group pledging to help raise millions in private money to beef up pre-kindergarten learning in the state.

James Clair, CEO of Goold Health Systems and chairman of the new group, spoke Thursday morning at a news conference in Portland to celebrate the release of the third installment of the influential “Making Maine Work” report, which ties early childhood education to economic prosperity.

Clair said the nascent coalition, which held its first meeting Wednesday, is not ready to announce a firm fundraising goal, but told reporters the figure would be “in the millions — it’ll be seven digits.”

Previous editions of Making Maine Work, both in 2010, touted the importance of investing in Mainers’ quality of life and the public university system. The third in the series, released Thursday, is titled “Making Maine Work: Investment in Young Children = Real Economic Development.”

All of the Making Maine Work reports were compiled in joint efforts by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Maine Development Foundation. The latest installment in the series was funded by The Bingham Program and the Sam L. Cohen Foundation.

“We start investing in our people too late,” Chamber President Dana Connors said during the Thursday event, held at MaineHealth’s Portland headquarters. “We need to invest in our people starting at birth. Waiting to invest in our people when they enter the K-12 system is too late for too many.”

Connors cited the oft-referenced statistic that 85 percent of a child’s core brain development takes place before age 3, and suggested that building a sharper and more adaptable work force down the road will take a focus on the youngest Mainers now.

Laurie Lachance, president of the Maine Development Foundation, said every dollar spent on pre-kindergarten education yields as much as $16 in returns, coming in the form of future higher income levels for the students as well as reduced public spending on remedial education, welfare and law enforcement.

Thursday’s report called for the expansion of access to early childhood education programs statewide. Lachance said 21 percent of children under the age of 5 in Maine live in poverty, and only 20 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds attend public pre-kindergarden. She said just 30 percent of Maine children eligible to take part in Head Start, a federally funded early childhood education program, are so enrolled.

Rich Donaldson, an L.L. Bean executive and Maine Development Foundation board chairman, said stakeholders on hand Thursday propose modeling pre-kindergarten expansion efforts after the program used by the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1.

In that school district, which serves five southern midcoast municipalities, public education dollars are used to support local private preschool operators that meet certain quality standards, in effect pulling the network small operations under the RSU 1 umbrella to provide districtwide pre-kindergarten services. The arrangement helps dull push-back from private preschool operators who might otherwise be worried expansion of public programs would steal their customers, Connors said.

The latest Making Maine Work report also calls for all Maine child care providers to meet high state standards for quality, in part through creating tax incentives for such providers, as well as families and businesses which use them.

The study includes additional recommendations to launch a statewide outreach campaign associating early childhood investments with economic prosperity, and increasing investment and strategic planning for pre-kindergarten programs. Lachance said state leaders should apply a “global” approach to education in Maine, taking into account that investing in pre-kindergarten programs will drive down the amount spent on remedial programs throughout the rest of the systems.

As for investing in early childhood education, Clair said Thursday his new coalition of businesses is prepared to do its part. The fledgling Maine Early Investment Group — which includes representatives of architecture and engineering company WBRC, accounting firm Baker Newman Noyes, Bangor Savings Bank, Gorham Savings Bank and his Goold Health Systems in addition to BIW and Hannaford — is launching a fundraising push in the coming year, with a to-be-named goal in the millions of dollars.

Clair said the raised money will then be distributed for early childhood education projects proposed around the state.

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.