AUGUSTA — Business advocates for early childhood education want to see government spending directed toward programs such as Early Head Start, public preschool and home visiting.

Some of Maine’s top business leaders also are committing their own money, so confident are they in the benefits of expanding acess and improving the quality of early education in the state.

The Maine Early Learning Investment Group, also known as MELIG, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from its member businesses and plans to seek millions more from other businesses, wealthy individuals and foundations.

The group’s Elevate Maine initiative calls for raising and spending $17 million in five years to train early childhood educators, mentor parents and provide scholarships for low-income children.

“Maine’s children cannot wait,” said Jim Clair, co-chairman of the group and CEO of Goold Health Systems in Augusta. “At a time when public resources are least available, MELIG is committed to raising funds to demonstrate that high-quality early education and resources produce results for Maine’s famlies.”

Gathered at the State House on Tuesday, business leaders decried the academic underperformance of Maine students. They said the problems begin long before children enter school and persist to create a shortage of adults with the skills companies will need in the future.

“I’m concerned about our future because our state isn’t doing enough for our children early to ensure that we have a quality workforce able to carry on our shipbuilding heritage,” said Jeff Geiger, president of Bath Iron Works.

Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors said that has made early childhood education an increasingly popular cause as business leaders in Maine and elsewhere have learned more about the cognitive and social development that takes place in the earliest stages of childhood.

“This has been an evolving issue that I think with time has become stronger,” Connors said. The more it’s talked about, the more you see business leaders and others pick up the mantle, as happened today.”

Early education is also a priority of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and businesses have formed other partnerships such as ReadyNation to support early education and school readiness.

The national advocacy group America’s Edge opened its Maine office in Topsham in late 2009, with Connors as the first member in the state. With a membership of business leaders, America’s Edge lobbies policymakers to invest in early childhood education and undertake educational reforms to track and improve academic outcomes.

The organization, which now has 107 members in Maine, released a report earlier this year estimating that the $28.2 million in public funds spent on early childhood education in Maine in 2011 generated an additional $22 million in economic activity, for a total of impact of $50 million. That represents $1.78 of activity for every $1 invested.

While America’s Edge focused on the immediate effect, most of the discussion about the “return on investment” from early childhood education takes a longer view. Advocates say it reduces costs for special education and remediation while children are in school and for social welfare and law enforcement in later years.

Evidence for the rate of the return, and the persistence of benefits from early learning, varies across studies. University of Maine economics professor Philip Trostel is finishing a study about the projected fiscal effect if Maine were to invest more in early learning programs starting at birth.

MELIG formed last year with 10 business leaders who have developed a plan that Clair said is not intended to supplant work being done by the public-sector or nonprofit organizations. Educare Central Maine will lead the implementation of Elevate Maine; and the Maine Children’s Growth Council, the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation also will work on the initiative.

The initiative has six components, two of which will be statewide: a public awareness campaign about the importance of early learning and training early childhood educators to improve their programs.

Four other components will be implemented in three communities that Clair said have not been chosen yet because the group wanted to raise more money first.

In those communities, the initiative will provide parent education and mentoring about the best ways to promote children’s development. There also will be more intensive coaching for early childhood educators, scholarships for educators to upgrade their skills and curriculum, and scholarships for 120 low-income children to attend a high-quality early learning program.

The local efforts will be concentrated in places that are particularly underserved, but MELIG members said Maine as a whole is deficient in high-quality early learning programs.

About one-third of Maine children due to enter kindergarten attend public pre-kindergarten programs. Only 28 percent of licensed child-care providers were at the highest level of Maine’s quality rating system as of December, including only 5 percent of home-based centers.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]