November 19, 2013

Maine voices: State makes disheartening decision on early learning grants for children

Not applying for federal funds to help them build an educational foundation is a puzzling lost opportunity.

GORHAM — Mainers have a long tradition of working together to solve tough problems. And we know that even in difficult economic times we must make decisions that will benefit us in the long term.

Preparing Maine for a prosperous future begins with ensuring that our youngest citizens get what they need to become the adults who will strengthen our communities and build our economy. Fortunately, what our children need is no longer a mystery.

An explosion in the science of early childhood has let us know that the early years are a time when the brain is literally building itself from the ground up, in much the way a house is constructed. When children have enriching early experiences – the building blocks of the maturing brain – children get off to a good start, establishing a strong foundation for future development.

This is why the U.S. Department of Education has invested in comprehensive improvements for states’ early-learning systems with Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge grants. These are competitive grants that would provide an unprecedented opportunity for a state to implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning and development programs and services. And that is exactly why Maine submitted an application in 2011.

While Maine was not selected, a second round of grants was announced for 2013, with hundreds of millions in federal dollars set aside for states that weren’t selected in the first round. It would seem a no-brainer that Maine should apply. And, in fact, the departments of Education and Health and Human Services were working diligently to meet the Oct. 16 deadline for applications.

Sounds like good news, right? Well, it was – until the LePage administration decided that the state would not be submitting the application.

This, to put it mildly, is puzzling, particularly given that Gov. LePage stated in the news release accompanying the 2011 application that “businesses in our state expect and deserve a workforce that’s highly skilled and adaptable. Guaranteeing children a solid educational foundation before they begin kindergarten is the first crucial investment we as a state can make in a future workforce that will drive economic growth in Maine.”

How, then, can we pull the plug on the state’s application to further its commitment to Maine children, and to the future economy of our state? It seems senseless at best, tragic at worst.

To find a possible explanation, we need only look to the governor’s decision earlier this year to refuse roughly $1 billion from the federal government that would have expanded health care for Maine people.

What is behind both of these decisions is not a valid difference of opinion in what government should or should not fund, because the funding was already there, the result of federal legislation. What lurks behind our governor’s decision is, instead, a rejection of both the process of and outcomes of democratic governance. And that is out of step not only with how Maine people think and what we value, but with the governor’s own words just two years ago.

When Maine submitted its grant application in 2011, the commissioner of education at that time, Stephen L. Bowen, wrote in the Kennebec Journal that the state’s plan had “attracted widespread support for good reason. The research on brain development is clear: About 85 percent of it happens in the first five years of life. If we can offer our children high-quality educational experiences when the impact is greatest, we can greatly increase the chances that our children start kindergarten ready to succeed in their learning and less likely to need extra – and costly – supports to catch them up to their peers.”

In short, if we expect solid outputs, we have to invest in solid inputs. And for years, Maine has relied on ingenuity and a “can do” spirit to improve early learning opportunities and experiences for our children. But there is much more to do. That is why it is so disheartening to see opportunities for innovative solutions approached with a “can’t do” attitude.

With so many economic challenges facing families right now, it is hard to imagine why we would do anything to make times harder, and make the future less secure, yet that is the impact of the governor’s decision.

— Special to the Press Herald

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