I am so pleased with the Maine Legislature’s Education Committee’s positive actions in unanimously approving L.D. 1043, a bill that will expand voluntary pre-kindergarten programs into every Maine school district in the coming years. This past winter, I had the privilege of testifying before the committee in support of this expansion. I shared my perspective on the importance of early childhood education based on 32 years in law enforcement, and as a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization that seeks to protect public safety by promoting solutions that steer kids away from crime.

There is no question that high-quality early learning programs are a powerful crime prevention strategy, because they prepare children to succeed in school during the most critical period for social, emotional and cognitive development. That’s what’s happening during the first five years of a child’s life, when 1 million neural connections are formed every second.

Research has consistently shown that children can reap powerful benefits from high-quality early childhood education. For example, a study of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers examined school readiness programs provided to preschoolers from some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. The study showed that kids who did not receive quality early learning programs were 70 percent more likely to have been arrested for a violent crime by age 18. By age 24, the now-young adults who were in the Child-Parent Center program as children were 20 percent less likely to have served time in jail.

Quality early learning programs also save money. A well-respected independent cost-benefit analysis of nearly 20 different studies showed that pre-K can, on average, return a “profit” (economic benefits minus cost) to society of nearly $27,000 for every child served.

Meanwhile, if you want to identify at least one issue that unites people during polarizing political debates, early learning is among the best examples you’ll find. In one recent year, 22 states with Republican leadership and 10 states with Democratic leadership increased funding for pre-K.

Moreover, support for high-quality early learning programs is also gaining traction among the nation’s business leaders, including the 2,000 members of ReadyNation – a coalition that promotes strategies to build a stronger workforce – who released a report, “Social-Emotional Skills in Early Childhood Support Workforce Success,” in 2018.

That report featured clear examples of how skills such as being able to follow directions, work well on a team, delay gratification and persevere to solve problems are so badly needed in the workforce. They’re also the kinds of skills you’ll see teachers focusing on day in and day out in quality early learning settings across our state.

Fortunately, Maine has made solid progress on increasing options for voluntary pre-K programming in various regions throughout the state in recent years, now serving about 47 percent of Maine’s 4-year-olds. I know we can do better, and I am more encouraged than ever that we will do better, based on the unanimous support of the Education Committee. Their backing is a big step in the right direction to give more of our youngest students key early learning opportunities.

Increased access to pre-K is a wise investment with a great return for Maine’s kids at what is a critical time in their development. I urge all Maine lawmakers to follow the Education Committee’s lead and support expanding voluntary public pre-K so it is accessible to all of Maine’s early learners. Each and every Maine child deserves the chance to start strong, so they say “no” to crime and live up to their fullest potential.

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