March 2, 2012

Maine Voices: When it comes to kids, LePage's actions don't match his rhetoric

The governor has proposed cutting state Head Start funding and other critical programs.

By SEN. JUSTIN ALFOND

PORTLAND - Who wouldn't agree with "putting kids first"? Educating and investing in students are priorities that cross political parties.

Over the last few weeks, Gov. LePage has attended a series of events where he's repeated, "It's all about the kids."

And while the governor's rhetoric is received favorably with applause, in reality, his actions, through his proposals and priorities, are cheating our future.

In the governor's 2012-2013 budget proposals, he suggests substantial cuts that are to the detriment of Maine children, families and our economy -- for example, cutting all state funding to support Head Start, eliminating home care visits for new parents and gutting other critical child care programs are among the governor's suggestions. Is this putting kids first?

The governor threatened to close schools across Maine. Is this putting kids first?

The governor vetoed legislation, despite its unanimous bipartisan support, that could have created a plan to unify the early childhood education system. Is this putting kids first?

And most recently, the governor unveiled his education initiatives that will greatly undermine our public education and our communities.

His education proposals are driven by ideology and a few special interests. One of his proposals would allow unbridled school choice in our state. This will hurt our local schools and have a damaging impact on our local taxes. Schools are already having to do more with less, and this proposal only makes that job harder. In fact, it would create a system that would close down some rural schools. Worse, the governor's proposal also allows our tax dollars to be sent to religious schools. Funding private or religious schools with taxpayer money undercuts the very value of our public education. Is this putting kids first?

Clearly, the governor's priorities and budgets do not put kids first. And the governor and his administration have chosen to ignore the many existing resources that could make for a world-class education system in Maine.

As a member of the Children's Growth Council and the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, I have heard first hand from teachers, principals, parents and students the importance of investing in the building blocks of a child's education. Just recently, the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine Chamber of Commerce released their Making Maine Work report touting the merits of public and private investment in early childhood development and education. In fact, the report connects the critical importance of investment in early childhood education to Maine's economy. Strengthening and investing in early childhood education is economic development for Maine.

Highlights from the report:

85 percent of core brain structure is formed by age 3;

Investment in quality early childhood development has the potential to deliver real economic benefits -- more than $16 for every $1 invested;

A foundation for a strong work force begins at birth, not age 18. Maine has tremendous opportunities to develop a world-class work force.

The sooner kids receive quality early care and education, the better the outcome for individuals, our families and for our communities. It sets the stage for our economic future.

We know during these challenging economic times, tough choices need to be made and priorities set. Making Maine Work reports that "all children would benefit from quality early childhood programming." Understanding that universal programming may be cost prohibitive, the report suggests, "investment focused on the children of the poorest families will go the furthest in reaching the overarching goals and may be the best use of public money."

We must be committed to building a strong foundation for all of our next generation of learners. Research shows that there is a very short window of time, from birth to age 5, when we can build this base of knowledge. Without this foundation, students are at a disadvantage, forever trying to make up lost ground.

State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is a member of the Education Committee.

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