DAMARISCOTTA — Public funding of education has deep roots. Maine’s constitution, written in 1820, called for public education, “education being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.”

Fast-forward to 2014 to find an accrual of studies making a strong case for a system of early childhood education beginning by at least age 3. Over the last seven or eight years, these studies have affirmed the centrality of early childhood learning, not only in support of quality of life but also as a critical contributor to the economic well-being of a state.

According to Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report, about 44 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Maine attend preschool, putting the state in 30th place among the 50 states and in last place among the other New England states. Even more troubling is a lack of a state-based early learning program here for 3- and 4-year-olds when many other states, and with good reason, are seeing the value of early learning.

What’s the rush to start a comprehensive learning process for our youngest learners? It is not a rush. It is a well-studied call to action.

The evidence is strong. Too many children arrive in kindergarten woefully behind their peers in understanding numbers, reading, language and, in some instances, social development. When children start school with such deficits, they generally do not catch up, even if they have exceptional teachers.

Research tells us that these are the very conditions that produce dropouts, student retention issues, increases in state expenditures related to unemployment and crime and depressed state economies.

Economist Philip Trostel’s study of full-time early child care and early childhood education, “Path to a Better Future,” makes a strong case that investing in high-quality early childhood education in Maine would more than pay for itself, in addition to achieving fundamental social and economic goals.

Mounting research evidence indicates that well-designed and well-delivered early childhood education programs will produce long-term improvements in school success, including higher achievement test scores, lower rates of grade repetition and special education, and higher educational attainment.

Some preschool programs are also associated with reduced delinquency and crime in childhood and adulthood. The biggest impact is found with children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Often underappreciated is the mutual dependency between education and the economy. As economic times continue to challenge states like Maine, this interdependency needs to be foremost in the minds of all policymakers, parents, private-sector stakeholders and Maine’s citizenry at large.

It should not be a question of if, but how: How do we assemble a high-quality statewide early childhood system of learning that is guided by a base of knowledge about children’s cognitive and social development?

If President Obama’s proposed legislation on early learning is funded, Maine must be ready. His proposal includes a cost-sharing mechanism with states to assemble high-quality early learning initiatives.

Here are several guidelines to consider going forward:

Early childhood learning is not an extension of K-12 education; young children are awash in developmental activity, cognitively and socially, requiring a unique base of knowledge, method of teaching and environment.

Well-educated early childhood teachers, program administrators and teacher aides will be needed. Maine’s two-year and four-year colleges should work in a spirit of cooperation to develop models of high-quality programs that are more than an extension of existing K-12 teacher education programs.

Parents, grandparents and guardians need to be involved. Meaningful links to caregivers will narrow a pesky gap between home and a child’s learning environment.

The learning capacity of young children must not be underestimated. Our knowledge of children’s ability to learn now stretches beyond the work of child psychologist Jean Piaget. Yes, a program in science, technology, engineering and math for the very, very young is possible!

We should think thoroughly and smartly about accountability: It is needed. Public-private partnerships are proving their worth and can be considered in the case of early learning

Accountability of any early learning initiative should include a clear connection to a system that tracks Maine’s students over multiple years, and it should include a valuable research component to track long-term effects on both cognitive and noncognitive issues.

We all have a role to play – parents and teachers, Maine’s legislators, business leaders, nonprofits, entrepreneurs and college presidents. Let’s get underway.

— Special to the Press Herald