BANGOR, Maine — A business advocacy group is urging Maine to bolster funding for statewide pre-kindergarten programs, claiming the long-term payback could be measured in the millions of dollars.
ReadyNation, a national business leader organization, released a report Tuesday called “You get more than what you pay for” during a news conference at Abraham Lincoln School in Bangor.
“The idea we need to understand is that pre-K education is workforce development,” said Stephen Rich, owner of a Bangor architecture firm and ReadyNation member.
He likened early childhood education to a building foundation. “If your foundation proves to be weak, cracks will show up and settlement will happen, and it’s much more expensive to repair those cracks and problems after the fact,” Rich said.
In past years, law enforcement officials and multiple business groups have taken up the call for pre-K expansion, citing research that shows that children who attend pre-K are less likely to commit crimes in the future and have more success in school as they progress.
On a statewide level, access is far from universal, according to ReadyNation. About 38 percent of Maine’s 4-year-olds have access to pre-K programs, though that’s expected to increase to about 42 percent in the next school year as a federal grant allows more communities to expand offerings.
Late last year, the Maine Department of Education announced it received $14.8 million from the federal DOE to expand pre-K offerings in Maine during the next four years, according to department spokeswoman Samantha Warren. It allowed 13 districts with a high percentage of students from low-income families to participate, but several of those districts have backed out for lack of local financial backing or support, according to Warren.
The state allocation toward pre-K programs has jumped from just $6.4 million in 2009-10 to $13.3 million in the current school year. Local allocations have also more than doubled from $7.4 million to $16.1 million during that same timeframe. Funding has increased as enrollment has increased — from just 2,273 students enrolled in pre-K or early kindergarten to more than 5,000 in the current school year, according to DOE.
Maine is home to an estimated 745 child care centers, 1,176 child care homes and 67 nursery schools, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“For [DOE] the focus is entirely on quality, not quantity,” Warren said. “To truly give kids the strong start they need for success in kindergarten and beyond, preschool programs must be high quality, with instruction that is intentional and grounded in research-based learning standards and proven best practices.”
Bangor’s school department started a pre-kindergarten program a decade ago, and that program is available to all families in the district, according to Superintendent Betsy Webb. The district offers a 2½-hour program for 4-year-olds with a focus on social development and fun learning. Partnerships with groups including the Bangor Y and Maine Discovery Museum expand pre-K to an all-day program, allowing children with working parents to attend.
Webb said pre-K can be more costly than instruction at higher grade levels because of higher teacher-student ratios, but the programs also boost school enrollment, making them worthwhile in a state where many districts have seen declining student numbers.
“Despite recent expansions to our state’s pre-K program, there is still a major shortfall in the number of children served,” said Bangor City Council Chairman Nelson Durgin, who also is a ReadyNation member.
ReadyNation’s report projects that if pre-K were extended to one-third of those potential pre-K kids who don’t currently have access, society would save $64 million — or $26,000 per student. That number includes projections of reduced crime rates, reduced need for special education, increased graduation rates and higher earning levels, among other considerations, according to the group.
Maine students who attended public pre-K schools as 4-year-olds went on to score 4-7 percentage points higher on reading and math proficiency tests later on in elementary school, according to data cited by ReadyNation. Data from other states has shown increases in graduation rates, decreases in the frequency of special education and improved academic performance among students who have attended pre-K.
Warren said the decision to establish pre-K programs should be a local call, and parents should determine whether their child should enroll in available programs.
“When districts do decide that it is the right step forward for them, our department is there as a resource to help them develop a quality program that provides a meaningful education experience,” she added.
Yellow Light Breen, executive vice president at Bangor Savings Bank and chairman of Educate Maine, argued local pre-K offerings have created a “patchwork quilt” but that offerings should be extended throughout the state “so it doesn’t matter what zip code you were born in.”
“One of the best kind of factories we can invest in is a learning factory,” Breen said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.