Each and every morning, principals and teachers welcome our children into our schools, acting as stewards, not only of the students’ futures, but also of the future of Maine. Our mission is to help students attain the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to achieve personal fulfillment, be responsible citizens, do meaningful work and pursue lifelong learning.
That’s a tall order, of course, and a humbling one, but it’s one that we take seriously as educators.
We also have been paying attention to the latest science of child development for guidance about how to create the best learning conditions for our students. We now know that all aspects of development — intellectual, social, emotional and physical — are intertwined. In other words, our work is as much about promoting students’ abilities to make responsible decisions and communicate clearly as it is about teaching them to write for comprehension and analyze math problems.
Teachers in the early grades know this very well. They see students at the beginning of their school careers and can tell easily which children have spent their earliest years in quality learning environments, surrounded by a network of skilled professionals, and which children have not. That is because responsive, stable, highly interactive relationships with adults early in life actually build the brain’s architecture, establishing a strong foundation for all future learning and development.
We also know that not all children have such opportunity, whether because of exposure to violence or other chronic challenges that produce what scientists call “toxic” stress reactions that can damage those foundational structures.
If Mainers want to develop a generation of good, solid kids who will contribute to our communities in the years to come, we must ensure that all children get that strong foundation in the earliest years of life.
We also know that investing in our youngest children has a strong rate of return. Arthur J. Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis writes that, “Careful academic research demonstrates that tax dollars spent on early childhood development provide extraordinary returns compared with investments in the public, and even private, sector. The potential return from a focused, high-quality early childhood development program is as high as 16 percent per year.”
James Heckman, Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago, has said that investing in quality early learning programs is the most efficient way to affect school and life success and to reduce social expenditures later.
About a year ago, Philip Trostel, a University of Maine economics professor, studied this issue and found that the real fiscal internal rate of return of investments in high-quality early childhood education in Maine is 7.5 percent.
Fortunately, we know what to do; we simply need the public will to bring it to fruition. In short, we have to match our policy to the growing evidence from developmental science and economics. The evidence suggests that the best investment we can make in our future is to promote the intellectual, social and emotional well-being of our youngest citizens today. The way to do that is by making quality early learning available to all Maine children, regardless of their family’s income and regardless of where they live.
The Legislature is considering a bill that would establish a process and funding for school districts all across Maine to implement voluntary pre-kindergarten. In fact, 12 members of the Maine Education and Cultural Affairs Committee believe so strongly in the value of high-quality early learning and its return on investment that they are proposing that the percentage of new state revenues from casinos, which is supposed to be dedicated to education, is spent predominantly on pre-K. That represents an annual influx of millions of new education dollars targeted to where the science and economics tell us it will do the most good: early education.
We Mainers are an innovative bunch. I know that when we roll up our sleeves and apply some Yankee ingenuity to the task, we can provide our children with the strong foundations they need for future success. The education committee has done just that with this suggested new funding stream to support the expansion of public pre-K. All legislators and the governor should follow their lead. It’s not only good for our children; it’s good for the future of Maine.
Eric Haley is superintendent of Kennebec Valley Consolidated Schools, which includes schools in Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro.