AUGUSTA – A good education provides the best ladder out of poverty and to a successful, more prosperous future. Access to affordable, quality child care and early childhood education are important rungs on that ladder.

Last week, the Legislature heard testimony on two bills that would restore and strengthen Maine’s commitment to Head Start and the state’s child care subsidy program, key elements of our commitment to assuring our kids have the support they need to succeed in school and in life.

L.D. 517, introduced by state Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, would restore $2 million in state funding for Head Start annually in the current biennium. L.D. 1383, introduced by Democratic state Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, would not only restore Head Start funding but also provide $6.9 million for child care, home visitation and other early childhood services shortchanged in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget.

Investing in Head Start, child care and other early childhood services is good for our children, their parents, our communities and our economy.

Study after study has confirmed that children who have participated in Head Start begin kindergarten better prepared. As teenagers and adults they are healthier, do better in school, and ultimately lead more prosperous, fulfilling lives.

Kids who have received early childhood education and whose families have had access to quality affordable child care are less likely to be diagnosed later with a learning disability or held back from advancing through school. They are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary education.

And in the Maine work force, they will more likely possess skills employers are seeking. According to economic research, quality early childhood development returns more than $7 for every $1 invested. 

Despite what we know about the impact of early childhood education — especially during a child’s first three years of life — on success in college, higher income and even lower crime and incarceration rates, we continue to spend less on the youngest age groups.

A study by the Urban Institute found that in 2008, federal and state governments spent about $10,000 per capita on education for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Spending was less than $5,000 on 3- to 5-year-olds and just $300 for children under 3.

Maine has fewer children receiving early education than the other New England states.

Fewer than 60 percent of Maine children age 3 to 5 are enrolled in nursery school, preschool or kindergarten. Of 3- and 4-year-olds, only 42 percent are in preschool, the lowest percentage in all of New England.

The availability of early childhood education programs such as Head Start and quality affordable child care also enhances the economic prospects for families as a whole.

In Maine, 70 percent of all children under age 6 live in households with both parents holding jobs. Access to early education and child care often makes it possible for these parents to work outside the home. Such parents have lower absentee rates and higher productivity rates.

With their kids participating in Head Start or in safe, nurturing child care, working parents also have a greater opportunity to earn a college degree or complete specialized job training.

Since the vast majority of today’s jobs paying wages sufficient to support a family require some postsecondary education, lack of quality child care can be a major roadblock on the path from poverty to the middle class for working families.

Maine is endowed with an abundance of natural resources and a work force internationally known for productivity and quality. But we must recognize that our most precious resource is our children.

Just as we invest as a state in roads, bridges and other infrastructure to boost our economy, the investments we make in our children, especially their education, will determine the future of Maine’s economy and quality of life.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy, the Maine Children’s Alliance and others are working to support legislation such as L.D. 517 and L.D. 1383 that provide the resources needed to assure quality, affordable early childhood education and child care.

When we invest in Maine’s kids, we are investing in all of us. And it’s the best investment we will ever make.

Jody Harris is policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, and Ned McCann is executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.