AUGUSTA — Business leaders and children’s advocates gathered at the State House Wednesday to urge state officials to make a greater public investment in early childhood education and development programs, citing a new report that details the benefits.

In the Legislature, however, supporters of such programs are fighting to get back to a funding level from two years ago, and a bill to establish universal public pre-kindergarten in Maine has been put on hold until next year.

Maine Children’s Alliance, Maine Children’s Growth Council and the Maine Early Learning Investment Group organized Wednesday to highlight the findings of a University of Maine economist who studied the potential fiscal benefits of a comprehensive early care and education system for low-income children from birth to age 4.

“It proves what a great investment early childhood investments are,” said Jim Clair, CEO of Goold Health Systems and co-chairman of the Maine Early Learning Investment Group. “He came back and said it generated a 7.5 percent return on investment, which is an excellent investment.”

Clair said he and the other business leaders in the early learning group will use the study results to raise private support for early childhood education while also trying to convince policymakers that creating such programs are a public responsibility and will benefit the whole state.

Philip Trostel, a professor at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the School of Economics at the University of Maine, used research on the outcomes of early childhood education programs elsewhere to envision a hypothetical system in Maine.

Trostel said funding for the study was raised by Steven Rowe, a former Democratic legislator and attorney general. Donors included nonprofit groups such as the Maine Community Foundation, businesses including Bangor Savings Bank and Hancock Lumber, and several individuals.

The voluntary system for low-income children would cost Maine $154 million per year more than the $99 million the state spent in 2011 on pre-kindergarten, Head Start, home visiting, childcare subsidies and other services that would be part of the hypothetical system. Trostel said he does not know of any state with a coordinated, publicly funded birth-to-4 system of the sort envisioned in the study.

According to Trostel’s study, the system would produce a net fiscal benefit of about $100,000 per child served. The state and federal governments would save money on child protection, special education, public assistance and law enforcement, Trostel said, and the children would earn more money as adults, thus paying more in taxes.

Trostel calculated a 7.5 percent return on investment for federal spending — which goes to support programs such as Head Start and child care subsidies — and 3.1 percent for state spending.

The initial investment would be recouped by the time a child turns 14, Trostel said. He said the benefits would be not only financial, but also in improving quality of life for the children served.

His report also noted obstacles for a comprehensive early care and education system, such as the initial investment required and working out the specific details such as eligibility, funding, and coordination among providers.

Trostel said he’s hopeful the study will advance the discussion about how to accomplish that.

“The momentum is building, and I’m hoping that this report will kick-start things even more in Maine,” he said. “For anything to really be done, it needs to become almost common knowledge among the general public that early childhood education is a great idea.”

In 2011, Maine failed to secure federal funding from the Race to the Top initiative to expand access to and improve the quality of early education and development programs, but the failed application produced a state work group that is addressing some initiatives.

The State Agencies Interdepartmental Early Learning Team is coordinating between the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to work on issues such as tracking data from early childhood education and improving training of workers in the field.

Some Legislators are also tackling early childhood issues.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, sponsored a bill this year to create universal, voluntary public pre-kindergarten, a concept that President Barack Obama has advocated nationwide. This week, the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee decided to carry the bill over to next session.

Senate Co-Chairwoman Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, said there was strong support in the committee for the bill — which would create the legal framework to establish the program in all Maine school districts by 2017 — but they put it on hold because the Department of Education is applying for some federal grants that could help.

“We thought it would be best to see how that goes and to give ourselves more time to discuss this pretty substantial public policy initiative,” she said.

Mary Henderson, senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance, said universal pre-kindergarten is complicated because it requires attention to coordination with — and possible impacts on — private child care providers and Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children.

Henderson said a very important bill that is moving forward is L.D. 1383, which would appropriate $15.5 million in state funds in the next two years to reverse cuts made to early childhood programs in the state budget approved last year. That budget reduced funding for Head Start, child care subsidies and home visiting, in which professionals connect new parents with resources and teach parenting skills.

According to information provided by Henderson, the state is spending $5.3 million on those programs this year, compared to $11.9 million in 2011-12 and $14.5 million in 2010-11.

L.D. 1383 received unanimous support from the Health and Human Services Committee. The sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said if the Legislature passes the bill and makes additional investments in the next few years, Maine will be positioned to reap benefits from early childhood programs.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Berry, the House majority leader. “It is a tough budget, but when a farmer is struggling he doesn’t decide not to plant seeds.”

Berry applauded Trostel’s report and said his colleagues in the Legislature are showing more interest in early childhood issues.

“I really think that it’s reaching a critical turning point in terms of the awareness of the opportunity that those first few years represent for all of us and our future prosperity,” he said.

Although this legislative session will at most return early childhood funding to a previous level, rather than making new investments, Henderson sees that as progress.

“We need to do it one step at a time,” she said. “And any investment is a good investment.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com