WATERVILLE — While Gov. Paul LePage made headlines last month blasting the state’s education system, a local Head Start program — and others statewide — continued to grapple with budget cuts made by the Legislature.

At Educare Central Maine on Drummond Avenue, administrators closed one class and eliminated four jobs because of the funding cuts. At other Head Start programs around the state, 25 people could lose their jobs and about 200 at-risk children lost the opportunity to attend early-education schools, according to analysts.

“It’s scary,” said Laurie LaChance, chairwoman of Educare Central Maine. “I understand what happens at the budget level, and I understand the tough choices; but any time we take even a small step backward, it’s a step in the wrong direction.”

In May, the Legislature reduced funding for Head Start by $2 million. At Educare, which serves about 220 children ages 0 to 5, the cut translates to a loss of $210,000, according to the school’s director, Kathryn Colfer. The cuts come from two directions, Colfer said. The school will receive $150,000 less from the state in direct funding, and families who are enrolled in the program will receive less tuition assistance from the state, roughly $60,000. The program also has lost $77,000 in federal money now that the American Rehabilitation and Recovery Act has ended, she said.

As a result of the $287,000 loss, Educare eliminated three teaching positions and an administrative position and closed one of its full-day, full-year classes that served eight infants and toddlers, its most staff-intensive and expensive program.

“We didn’t kick anybody out of the program,” Colfer said of the class closure. “We did it through attrition. It just means that there are eight fewer opportunities for enrollment.”

Head Start is a federal program that provides education to children, ages 0 to 5 years old, and child care for their families, primarily those living in poverty. The majority of Head Start funding is paid by the federal government directly to qualified schools, but Maine provides additional support, Colfer said.

Head Start programs in Maine have the capacity to serve fewer than 30 percent of Maine’s income-eligible children, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2010, there were 18,000 children between 0 to 5 living in poverty in Maine, which is 22 percent of all Maine children in that age group.

Ed Cervone is interim president of the Maine Development Foundation, a group that strives to improve long-term, sustainable economic development for Maine. Cervone said Head Start programs have the power to end the cycle of poverty in Maine by focusing on its youngest children.

“That’s their foundation for success or failure,” Cervone said of the 0-to-5 age range. “Poverty is a huge, toxic stress to a family and a kid. If a kid is already coming into the world into poverty, there’s already one strike against them — one more hurdle for them to get to success. Programs like Head Start are valuable, proven, and have good effects for Maine kids.”

Judy Reidt-Parker, an early-childhood policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance, said studies show that the return on investment for Head Start programs is higher than the funding of older age groups or children in different economic circumstances.

“The thing that makes Head Start special is it’s targeted at a specific at-risk population. You get a return of $7 for every $1 invested,” she said. “These studies have been going on for 35 to 40 years, and the returns are pretty evident now.”

The $1-to-$7 cost-benefit ratio is touted by the National Head Start Association website, which cites three scientific studies as sources. Two of the studies, published by the Social Policy Report and the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, make no mention of a specific ratio in regard to Head Start, but both conclude Head Start could be as effective or more effective than a $1-to-$7 cost-benefit ratio at a similar preschool program, the High/Scope Perry Preschool.

Despite the research, early-education programs receive a small percentage of overall education programs in the state and elsewhere, said LaChance, who is also president of Thomas College.

“If we consider it all together, might we shift some of the resources to that earlier time in life?” she said. “Ultimately, when children enter the school system, they would be much more ready to learn, and they would have a much greater opportunity for success throughout their entire school career. If we did that, I believe we would see a reduction in special-education costs. We would ultimately see better scores on our fourth-grade reading tests.”

Last month, LePage called attention to a study by Harvard University that ranked Maine 40th out of 41 states for growth in student test scores between 1992 to 2011. LePage claimed students from Maine are looked down upon by colleges in other states, and he said he would propose a bill to make Maine schools pay for any remedial classes its graduates take at college.

Reidt-Parker said it’s frustrating to hear criticism of the Maine education system during the same year when budgets for its youngest students were reduced.

“As we’re having this interesting, rather heated debate about education reform, I’m perplexed why early childhood (education) isn’t identified as part of the solution. We do know that this has a significant impact. If we’re concerned about reading scores or the high school dropout rate, some of that work needs to start at the beginning of a child’s life,” she said. “I think there are some folks who don’t consider early childhood as part of the education continuum. As long as we continue to do that, we’ll continue to have less success than we want.”

When the budget was passed, Republicans said they hoped the schools would cope by reducing administrative costs, not services to children, according to previous reports.

“If Head Start can’t serve the same population with a 7 percent cut, I’d be surprised,” Appropriations Committee member Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said in May.

Reidt-Parker said cutting administrative costs is easier said than done.

“That’s just not a reality. There have been little nips and tucks at the funding of early childhood education over the past 12 years that have been pretty significant, and then we had this huge flash,” she said. “Programs can’t absorb anything else administratively. They just don’t have it.”

Also, a significant portion of the administrative costs are paid for by federal grants, and the federal government requires schools to staff certain positions such as a education program managers, mental health consultants and physical health consultants, she said.

At Educare, Colfer is predicting there will be $60,000 less revenue this year because the state didn’t pay matching funds to obtain access to $5 million in federal child care subsidies for low-income families. She said the state’s decision compounds the school’s troubles.

“We’re still going to serve these families, but won’t get any revenue doing it, because they can’t access those vouchers,” she said. “It’s money we’re going to lose.”

Reidt-Parker said the state’s decision also impacts economic growth in Maine.

“We’re leaving $5 million in federal money on the table that could be helping people get to work,” she said. “Most parents — about 70 percent of the parents that participate in Head Start — are either employed or in school. Child care and Head Start is a tool for parents to increase their self-sufficiency.”

LaChance, who was the state economist from 1993 to 2004, said she empathizes with the tough choices the Legislature faced.

“That being said, I’ve come to understand that the greatest investment we can make in Maine’s future is in the education of our people,” she said. “If we don’t get it right, we spend millions trying to repair the loss and remediate. Had we invested as fully as needed in those early years, we would have reduced remediation costs and, in the worst-case scenario, corrections costs.”

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