Many of us agree that education plays a critical role in determining where a person ends up in life. A strong education provides equal footing for our children to pursue their dreams, manage life’s challenges and obtain financial security.

Beyond what education can offer us on an individual level, there is also a statewide economic impact of having a well-educated citizenry and workforce. Strengthening Maine’s public schools is a top priority for Democratic lawmakers in Augusta.

We also recognize that learning begins much earlier than the traditional “K-12” model. Between birth and 5 years of age, our children experience the highest growth in sensory, language and cognitive functions, and we are missing an important opportunity in a student’s life by ignoring this fact.

Early childhood education is also an economic booster. The Maine Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Development Foundation and businesses across the state agree that early childhood education is crucial for economic development.

Investment in early childhood education leads to greater success in school, reduced remedial education costs, improved earnings, and avoided or greatly reduced crime, social services and health care.

In a recent national survey of police chiefs, more than 80 percent ranked investing in early childhood education as the “top strategy” for reducing crime. It’s cost-effective, too: Every $1 spent on early childhood education yields $4 to $16 in benefits.

Unfortunately, not all children in Maine have access to early education. Only 60 percent of school districts in Maine offer some form of pre-kindergarten, and less than a third of our 4-year-old children are enrolled. We can do better than that.

Next session, we, along with our colleagues, will be supporting a bill to increase access to pre-K programs by providing a framework for universal, voluntary pre-K education to all school districts in Maine, so that more children will benefit from a strong foundation and positive early childhood experiences.

We must also strengthen the early childhood Head Start program. In Maine, Head Start provides comprehensive early care and education for more than 4,000 children. Even though the Legislature was able to successfully restore funding for Head Start that was cut by Gov. LePage, there are still many children in Maine who are eligible for the program but not able to participate.

Unfortunately, Gov. LePage’s rhetoric of “putting students first” rings hollow because it does not match the reality of his actions. Instead of making important investments in our children’s education, he proposed cutting funding for our schools.

Last session, he essentially gutted Head Start by eliminating all of the state’s share of the funding. Now, under a new proposal, the governor has called for more than $13 million in cuts to education. These cuts are antithetical to what we all know is necessary for a strong and prosperous Maine.

And it doesn’t stop there. Recently, his administration decided that Maine will not be pursuing federal funding under the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

This initiative awards millions of dollars to states that are committed to increasing the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged infants, toddlers and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs, and designing and implementing integrated systems of high-quality early learning programs and services.

But because of Gov. LePage’s blind allegiance to an extreme tea party agenda, Maine has missed an opportunity to help boost our children’s chances for happy, healthy, productive lives.

We are stronger as a family, as a community, as a state and as a country when we give every child the equal opportunity to succeed. We recognize that tough choices must be made in this difficult economic environment, but further cuts to education or ignoring the benefits of early childhood education will amount to nothing but self-inflicted wounds down the road.

It is our hope that the 126th Legislature will come together in bipartisan support of our efforts that look to the future well-being of our students, and that the governor will join us.

– Special to the Press Herald