Casino funds already funneled to state public education should be used to help pay for universal voluntary pre-kindergarten in Maine, the Legislature’s Education Committee voted Thursday.
“For me, this bill is about providing the opportunity (for pre-K.) It’s not forcing, it’s not mandating,” said Senate Chairwoman Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland. “I want to make sure we have a safe and secure and healthy place for those kids.”
The state’s annual portion of Oxford Casino revenues for K-12 education is estimated to be $18.4 million for 2013-14, according to the latest figures.
The committee also stripped the bill, L.D. 1530, of one of its most contentious elements: lowering the compulsory school age from 7 to 5 years old.
Some parents, particularly those who home-school their children, have opposed the idea of a public pre-K program, saying children shouldn’t be pushed into the regimen of school at such a young age.
About 60 percent of Maine schools now offer some form of pre-kindergarten, many of them part-time programs or partnerships between public and private providers. This year, 4,908 children are in public pre- kindergarten programs, up from 895 children in 2003-04. Almost 14,000 are enrolled in kindergarten.
An estimated 7,500 5-year-olds are enrolled in private care, state education officials say.
“A high-quality early education provides equal footing for all of our children, not just those who can afford private pre-K,” said bill sponsor Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic. “Early education plays a critical role in where a child ends up in life.”
The Legislature’s Education Committee voted 10-2 in favor of the bill, with two Republican lawmakers dissenting. One objected to the $1 million cost, and the other to requiring school districts to offer pre-K. The bill now goes to the Senate.
The committee also directed the Department of Education to go after any grants that could offset the costs of the program, which would be established by fall 2017.
“This is a great step forward,” said Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick.
Earlier in the day, business and law enforcement officials joined about a dozen lawmakers at a press conference to support the bill, saying early education deters later criminal activity.
“If we don’t invest early, you pay in the long run,” said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, citing his own experience and studies that show early education leads to a lower dropout rate, and decreases the likelihood of being arrested for a felony. “It seems to me the solution is very simple. Invest, and invest early.”
Merry was joined by Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Maine established its public pre-kindergarten program in 1983. Officials in each district decide whether to offer pre-K, with school board approval. Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier recently told legislators the department is working to expand those efforts and provide more support for early learning in the state.
About a dozen people and children attended the work session wearing “I oppose LD1530” tags, although they did not speak because there was no public comment.
Outside the committee room, Ed Green said he is mostly opposed to the bill because it represents an overreach of the government.
“The people who want to have their kids in pre-K are doing it,” said Green, who runs a home- schooling association. “I think it’s a state progression of control over kids.”
The cost of instructors, space, transportation and other services for pre-kindergarten is generally recognized as the biggest hurdle, and the existing pre-K programs in Maine generally needed $150,000 for startup costs, state education officials told the committee.
Maine’s current pre-kindergarten programs are supported by a patchwork of state and federal funds, money from the federal Head Start program, grants, local fundraising and donations from businesses and residents.
Last Thursday, President Obama signed a federal budget that includes more than $250 million to help states implement universal pre-K programs, with funding expected to be available this fall.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his state of the state address that he wants pre-K available statewide, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised it will be available in New York by this fall.
A national study put Maine 14th in the nation for offering 4-year-olds’ access to public pre-K programs, according to a survey of 2011-2012 school year data by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at: