A recent study has found that there are thousands more needy young children in Maine than funded slots in the state’s Early Head Start programs, which provide holistic services for low-income families with children ages 0 to 2, as well as pre-natal care.

While each Early Head Start program in the state already has a waiting list, Head Start agencies statewide are facing a potential $1.8 million cut to their budgets in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state spending plan.

“That will absolutely devastate the program in Maine,” said Sue Powers, who has served as chairwoman of the Maine Head Start Directors’ Association since November. “Without that funding on July 1, there will be at least 83 children in Maine that will have Early Head Start discontinued.”

Supporters of early childhood programs such as Head Start point to research that shows the children go on to have better lives in a variety of ways, providing higher rates of return on investments in their communities.

“I would hope that policymakers would have an understanding that for the future success of children in school, the biggest impact they could make is to invest in that age range,” Powers said.

A BARE MINIMUM OF 8,000

A researcher at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire recently released a study that found only 837 funded slots for Early Head Start in Maine, but more than 8,000 children living in poverty who would be eligible for the program.

Jessica Carson, a vulnerable families research scientist at the university, said she has partnered with the John T. Gorman Foundation in Portland to better understand Early Head Start and Head Start in the state.

“I think Early Head Start is an important piece of the picture when it comes to thinking about the lives of vulnerable families,” Carson said. “It’s certainly not the only part of the early childhood education system” which is “really struggling systematically from underinvestment” across the country.

Carson said she used U.S. Census data from the American Community Survey to determine how many children ages 0 to 2 were potentially eligible for Early Head Start based on their families’ income levels.

But that number doesn’t count the children who lie in the 100 percent-to-130 percent poverty range or who struggle with disabilities or community-specific problems, and it also doesn’t include eligible pregnant women.

“The number 8,000 is like a bare number of children who would be eligible,” Carson said.

At Educare Central Maine in Waterville, which serves about 210 children, including those in Head Start programs, the largest waiting list is for infants and toddlers, said Kathy Colfer, the child and family services director at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, or KVCAP.

According to 2015 Census data for Kennebec County, about 20 percent of children up to 4 years old live in poverty, compared to the state average of 19.5 percent and the national average of 22.8 percent.

“When you look at all the research, it’s so clear that it’s needed,” Colfer said. About 54 infants and toddlers are on the waiting list for the school, which is a partnership among KVCAP, Waterville public schools, Head Start, the William and Joan Alfond Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.

‘ONLY PROGRAM’ FOR POOR

The federal government directly funds the majority of Early Head Start and Head Start agencies’ costs, but each agency is required to provide a 25 percent match from local and state funds, said Powers, who is also the senior manager of early care and education services at the Aroostook County Action Program.

Early Head Start, which has 11 agencies across the state that receive federal grants and two tribal grantees, serves pregnant women and children through 2 years old who meet the program’s criteria. Generally, any family that is at or below the poverty rate is eligible.

The 100 percent poverty rate for a family of four in 2017 is $24,600, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start agencies are allowed to take families who make up to 130 percent of the poverty rate once they take care of those at 100 percent or below. The 125 percent poverty rate for a family of four is $30,750.

Families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income are also automatically eligible for the programs.

“Programs are given flexibility to meet community needs as well,” Powers said, so agencies can respond when a mill shuts down and families are laid off.

Some agencies also serve children with disabilities.

“Early Head Start is the only program that I know of that is income-driven and is solely for, or gives a priority to, families from low-income situations,” Powers said.

LONGER WAITS, FEWER SLOTS

Every Early Head Start program has a waiting list, as does every Head Start program except for Midcoast Maine Community Action, which serves Lincoln, Sagadahoc and northern Cumberland counties.

Those waiting lists — at 579 children for Early Head Start as of December 2016 — may get longer after July 1, according to Powers, who estimated at least 83 Early Head Start slots would have to be cut.

For Educare Central Maine, the $1.8 million cut would translate to one less class for low-income children, Colfer said. There are eight children under 3 in each class.

The school provides full-day, yearlong care, as well as part-time services, and it takes a two-generation approach to helping families, she said.

Colfer said Maine needs to prioritize its early childhood education.

“I know the budget is tight, but I also understand that this is the next generation; and if we want a very capable workforce, we have to start very young,” she said. “I think it’s important to the future success of Maine.”

Mary Ellin Logue, an associate professor at the University of Maine at Orono and director of the School of Learning and Teaching, agreed.

“Sometimes the discussion doesn’t go deeply enough because there’s that fear of increasing the tax burden on local families,” Logue said. “We have to keep having this conversation and we have to keep looking at the benefits long-term, because otherwise we are going to keep paying more. If we’re waiting until (age) 5 to start educating them, then we’ve lost our edge.”

Rick McCarthy, a registered lobbyist for the Maine Head Start Directors Association, said it’s likely that the Legislature will restore some of the Head Start funding that was cut in the governor’s budget, but “probably not all.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who sits on the appropriations committee, could not be reached for comment and did not return an emailed request.

While some are critical of the high cost of sending a child through the program in Maine, Powers said there are reasons for that.

Doing business in Maine is expensive, especially with heating costs, she said. The programs also choose to invest in the facilities and equipment they use for children.

In Maine, the staff is more educated than the national average, as shown in Carson’s study.

More than 37.5 percent of center-based teachers and 65 percent of home visitors have at least a four-year degree, the study found, compared to 25.4 percent and 54.6 percent nationally.

“We are providing programming that are showing high outcomes for children related to school readiness,” Powers said, “and all of those things come at a cost.”

SERVING CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

What separates Head Start from other early childhood programs is its holistic approach, Powers said.

“Our goal is to work with the family on setting up resources and structures within the family that will allow the family to be self-sufficient and be able to access resources,” she said.

Head Start agencies connect families and their children with health care, primary providers, mental health services and more. They help the families meet their goal, whether that is workforce training or furthering their education, and they provide parenting help they may not otherwise receive.

“The origins of Early Head Start come out of our understanding of early intervention,” said Logue, who teaches early childhood education classes and has extensive experience with Head Start. “The key to early intervention is supporting families.”

In these early experiences, she said, toddlers establish relationships with adults and learn through face-to-face interactions. The first few years “sets the foundation for future learning,” she said.

The connection with families is also an important piece.

“It’s about resiliency and vulnerability. There are a lot of people who have a rough time in life, but if they get a second chance, they can reset,” Logue said. “Head Start is a place where many families can start again and do better with their kids than their own experience was.”

The more involved a parent is with a child’s school, the better the child does throughout his or her academic life, she added.

Investing up front also can produce higher returns on investments for states and communities, according to research.

A study by James Heckman, from the University of Chicago, found that a high-quality program aimed at disadvantaged children ages 0 to 5 delivered a 13 percent annual return on investment, versus a 7 percent to 10 percent return for typical preschool programs that served 3- to 4-year-olds.

Heckman, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics, analyzed two preschools in North Carolina that started in the 1970s and found that children who received high-quality care in those early years had better life outcomes, including more years of education, lower drug use and higher income than their parents.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour