AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of expanding early childhood education opportunities in Maine lobbied the Legislature’s Education Committee on Monday in favor of a bill that would give every Maine child the opportunity for a pre-kindergarten education.

While some members of the committee said they appreciated the opportunity to delve into an issue outside the constraints of a typical public hearing, others said Monday’s hearing was stacked with proponents and bordered on being a waste of legislators’ time.

“I don’t think today was very helpful,” said Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, a member of the Education Committee who spent nearly three hours Monday hearing from experts about the merits of the bill. “I felt it was agenda-driven and I question whether it was the best use of our time. That’s unfortunate.”

A parent who opposes the measure labeled it an attempt to inject government between parents and their children. And the Maine Department of Education questioned whether the bill is needed.

LD 1530, An Act to Establish a Process for the Implementation of Universal Voluntary Pre-kindergarten Education, was proposed earlier this year by former Democratic Sen. Seth Goodall of Richmond, who resigned his Senate seat in July to take a job with the Small Business Administration. Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, who now occupies Goodall’s seat, took over shepherding the bill.

“Not all Maine children have access to early education,” said Vitelli during testimony on Monday. “Only 60 percent of school districts in Maine offer some form of pre-kindergarten, and less than a third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in a public pre-K program. We can do better than that. While pre-K may not be for every child, no one should miss out on this important opportunity because of lack of access or resources.”

The bill proposes to fund an early childhood coordinator in the Department of Education who — among other things — would be responsible for distributing $1 million in grants next year for local school districts to create pre-kindergarten programs. Education proponents have long said that more investment in programs for children younger than 6 reduces a range of costs later in life.

According to data from the department, there are 201 public preschool programs in 109 school districts in Maine, which represents about 63 percent of districts that have kindergarten programs.

The arguments in favor of early childhood education were forceful, beginning with Dr. Judy Cameron, a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist who argued that positive influences on people from birth to 5 years old are crucial for proper brain development. Prolonged stress in a youngster’s life, such as poverty or neglect, can dampen the development of neurological pathways in ways that have lifelong effects on everything from learning to motor skills and personal health.

“Experiences are much more powerful than genes in the way the brain develops,” said Cameron. “From an economic perspective, you can get people to be much more effective and productive if you put the dollars in earlier.”

Retired Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, former adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said he viewed early childhood education as a national security issue because fewer and fewer of the military’s “target audience,” meaning men between 18 and 24 years old, are able to pass entrance exams. He said nearly 20 percent of Mainers don’t graduate on time and some 16 percent of those who do can’t pass entrance exams.

Mark Westrum, a county jail administrator and former Sagadahoc County sheriff, said better efforts in early childhood education lead to fewer incarcerated adults.

“We have to take every step that we can to reduce crime before it happens,” he said. “We know that high-quality early education programs help keep kids out of trouble. The research backs up what law enforcement already knows.”

The bill is also attracting attention from parents, particularly those who home-school their children. Armelle Sigaud of Rockland has six children who have never attended a public school. Three of them are in college or beyond, including a 17-year-old son who is preparing to graduate from college with a degree in biology.

“I believe this bill is highly detrimental to families,” she said. “It’s one more attempt by the state to control children’s education at an early age by separating them from their families.”

LD 1530 states explicitly that enrollment in pre-K programs should be voluntary, but Sigaud said she has heard that before.

“Public kindergarten was also voluntary officially and now almost all 5-year-olds are enrolled in kindergarten,” she said. “Making it voluntary is kind of a cover for gradually making it the norm. … There is no greater adventure for parents and children than learning together.”

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, agreed with McClellan about the one-sided nature of Monday’s hearing and said he would have preferred a more balanced presentation on the bill. Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the committee’s House chairman, said a public hearing was held on the bill earlier this year and that no one spoke in opposition to it.

“The evidence is compelling that getting kids earlier and helping them often is big,” he said. “Unfortunately some of the data shows that we’re not really getting to them. We’re obviously not doing something right.”

Samantha Warren, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the department, which hired an early childhood consultant in recent weeks, has problems with the bill.

“We question the real necessity of the bill at this time and would rather focus on supporting districts when they voluntarily decided this is the right step forward for them, rather than forcing them into an unfunded mandate they may not be interested in or ready for,” wrote Warren in an email.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.