FALMOUTH — Every student deserves the chance to succeed. But for too many Maine kids, by the time they enter a kindergarten classroom, the deck is already stacked against them.

Eighty-five percent of a child’s brain development occurs before they turn 5, and whether or not a child has access to a nurturing educational environment during those earliest years can have a significant impact on his or her success in school and in life.

The research about the importance of quality early childhood education is resounding and conclusive. Adults who experienced quality early care as kids are more likely to graduate from college, be employed and make higher wages. They are less likely to enter the criminal justice system or rely on public assistance. The military has even labeled lack of early education as a national security issue because so few young men and women are qualified to serve.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of investing in this critical, formative stage of life, the United States trails far behind other developed countries in access, investment and quality of early childhood education programs.

We are not just failing our kids; we’re also missing out on a powerful economic development tool. Investments in high-quality early education generate economic returns of over $8 for every $1 spent.

Like most of the country, Maine lacks a comprehensive early childhood education system, and we need to do something about it. Expensive and less effective correctional interventions later in life are too little, too late. We need to make investments when they count the most – even before kids begin to learn their ABCs and 123s.

Children from low-income families are less likely to have access to quality early care than their middle-class peers. They are more likely to face an uphill battle in school, reinforcing the achievement gap and compounding the other challenges they already face.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, strengthening our economy and breaking the cycle of poverty, this investment is the single most effective public policy tool we have.

The first problem to tackle is access. Public preschool programs are available in just 64 percent of Maine school districts, and only about a third of 4-year-olds in Maine are enrolled. When private preschool is included, participation rises to 42 percent for 3- and 4-year-olds, but that’s behind the New England rate of 56 percent. For children from families who make less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $40,320 a year for a family of three, participation is even lower, and the prohibitive cost of private programs is a big factor.

In 2014, the Maine Legislature passed a law to establish public preschool programs at all Maine school districts by the 2018-2019 school year. Participation would be voluntary, but universal access would help expand opportunities for Maine kids, no matter where they live or what their parents can afford. However, without adequate funding for this expansion, this goal will not be attained. We must prioritize funding to help school districts fill this gap in the public education system.

In addition to access, the biggest factor that affects current participation is cost. According to a 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute, childcare for a 1-year-old accounts for 61.3 percent of the salary for a full-time minimum-wage worker.

But even middle-class families struggle with the high cost. In fact, a year of daycare for an infant is more than the cost of in-state tuition for a year at the University of Maine. Many parents are forced to quit their jobs or scale back their hours to stay home, representing a loss for the economy.

Finally, we need to ensure that early childhood programs are high quality, employing best practices for childhood development.

One way to do that is by valuing early care teachers more. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average income for a full-time child care professional in 2014 was just $21,710. It is challenging to draw skilled and passionate child care professionals to the field when the pay is so low.

Maine has the opportunity to be a leader in the field of early childhood education. We could attract more young families in a state that is currently the oldest in the country and on track to grow older.

There is no time to waste. On average, about 35 babies are born in Maine each day, and they each deserve the chance to succeed.


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