November 26, 2013

Statewide pre-kindergarten supported at Maine legislative hearing

The benefits far outweigh the costs, the bill’s proponents say, and parents would decide whether to enroll their kids.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers were urged Monday to support a bill that would make Maine one of a handful of states to offer pre-kindergarten in every school district.

Today's poll: Universal pre-kindergarten

Should the Legislature's Education Committee support a Maine bill for universal pre-kindergarten?

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In this March 2007 file photo, Dr. Christopher Lyons, a teacher at Carlin Springs Elementary School, holds a book as he recites to pre-kindergarten students in Arlington, Va. Maine lawmakers were urged Monday to support a bill that would make Maine one of a handful of states to offer pre-kindergarten in every school district.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

click image to enlarge

In this March 2007 file photo, teacher Ellen Vicens, left, helps pre-kindergarten students with computers at Carlin Springs Elementary School in Arlington, Va. Maine lawmakers were urged Monday to support a bill that would make Maine one of a handful of states to offer pre-kindergarten in every school district.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

“Many of us agree at this point that early childhood education plays a critical role in determining where a person ends up in life,” Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, the bill’s sponsor, told the Legislature’s Education Committee.

About 60 percent of Maine school districts now offer some form of pre-kindergarten, many of them part-time programs. State officials said 4,765 children are in pre-kindergarten programs. Almost 14,000 are enrolled in kindergarten.

Vitelli’s bill, L.D.1530, would create a process to establish “universal” pre-kindergarten in Maine by the fall of 2017. Parents would decide whether to put their children in the program.

The bill would create a group to work with the state Department of Education to implement the program, and it would lower the compulsory age for school attendance from 7 to 5, as of July 2016.

No cost projection is in the bill, but the cost of instructors, space, transportation and other services for pre-kindergarten is generally recognized as the biggest hurdle. Vitelli addressed that issue Monday.

“While the costs of universal pre-K are real, under-investing in early childhood education leads to far larger costs down the road in social services, crime, incarceration and unfilled economic potential,” she said.

Universal pre-kindergarten has broad support from groups ranging from teachers to law enforcement. This year, President Obama brought it to the forefront of his education efforts, calling for universal pre-kindergarten and including $75 billion in his proposed federal budget, to be funded by an increase in the federal cigarette tax from $1.01 per pack to $1.95.

The federal funds would be provided to states and distributed to school districts, or to school districts in partnership with other early learning providers, to offer all-day preschool programs. An additional $750 million would be earmarked for grants for pre-kindergarten programs. Maine would receive $5.5 million in the first year of the program, with an initial state match of $500,000.

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.

A program in the Bath area’s Regional School Unit 1 is funded with such a blend, said its coordinator, Rosalie Perkins. The Choices program began with 14 students in 2006 and now has 121, out of about 150 potential pre-kindergarten students in the district, she said. The program is available at schools and through local partners such as the YMCA and a day-care provider.

“I would like to urge you today to pass this bill,” Perkins told the committee Monday. “We need more funding, We need a more complete support system.”

A fundraising appeal said it costs $3,060 to support a child through one year of Choices, which runs three half-days per week.

RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel also spoke in favor of the bill, calling for state education money to be reallocated to fund it, even at the expense of other programs.

HIGH-RANKING SUPPORT FOR BILL

Extensive research has documented how early education benefits children, from higher graduation rates and better test scores to lower crime rates.

“We know high-quality early education programs help keep kids out of trouble. The research backs up what law enforcement already knows,” said Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. He said he would like to see more money provided to early education and less to corrections.

Retired Maj. Gen. Bill Libby, former Maine adjutant general, also spoke in support of the bill, describing early education as a national security issue.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Universal pre-kindergarten

Should the Legislature's Education Committee support a Maine bill for universal pre-kindergarten?

Yes

No

View Results