AUGUSTA — Education groups testified Friday in favor of a bill that would make Maine one of a handful of states offering universal pre-kindergarten, a program that President Obama has advocated nationwide.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, would create a legal framework to establish voluntary pre-kindergarten in all school districts in Maine by 2017.

The measure would set up a committee to work with the Department of Education to implement the program. It also would lower the compulsory age for school attendance from 7 to 5, beginning in July 2016.

Nearly 60 percent of Maine’s school districts now offer pre-kindergarten, said Senate Democrats in a news release.

The Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals’ Association and the Maine Children’s Alliance testified in support of the bill before the Legislature’s Education Committee.

“Early-childhood education is one of those issues where there is so much unity about its importance and so much agreement about expanding it,” Goodall said in a statement after the hearing.

Maine ranked 14th in 4-year-olds’ access to public pre-kindergarten programs in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The institute said nearly 32 percent of 4-year-olds — more than 4,500 children — attend public programs in Maine.

In 2009, the institute said only three states offered “preschool for all” — Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma. Three other states, Illinois, New York and West Virginia, had adopted plans to get to that level.

Florida and Oklahoma had the highest and second-highest enrollment among 4-year-olds in the 2011-12 school year, according to the institute, with more than 79 percent and more than 71 percent, respectively, attending public programs.

Obama included a universal, public preschool program in his proposed federal budget earlier this year, to be funded by an increase in the federal cigarette tax from $1.01 per pack to $1.95.

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Obama said in his State of the Union address in February. “Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”

Critics say the funding mechanism is unreliable and could dry up, as a higher cigarette tax would reduce smoking.

Goodall’s proposed funding mechanism was also questioned Friday. His bill would provide more than $1 million to give grants to school districts to create or expand programs and create a position in the Department of Education.

Cornelia Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said her group supports the concept of the bill but mandating that schools create programs would likely cost more than the bill would provide.

It could also have implications for state aid to schools that aren’t addressed in the bill, she said in written testimony.

“If we approve this concept, but don’t fund, it will not succeed,” Brown said.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme