As mayor of Waterville it is my duty to act in the best interests of my constituents and ensure a healthy and prosperous future for the city.


This is why I am a strong supporter of early childhood education and care programs, and urge the governor and Legislature to restore the funding that has been cut from Head Start, home visitation programs and child care.


Providing all Maine children with a healthy start is not just a moral obligation, but it’s also an economic imperative. When I ran for the office of mayor, economic development was something I talked about at every opportunity. Now that I’m in office, it’s one of the things on which I spend most of my time.


While a lot of my work is aimed at developing typical economic assets such as our airport, downtown and local businesses, I also spend a significant amount of time focusing on an asset we don’t generally associate with economic development: young children.


Early childhood programs are among the most profitable sectors for our state to invest in. Every dollar spent on early childhood programs generates $1.78 in returns for the Maine economy. These are larger than profits yielded in most other sectors, including farming, transportation and construction.


Furthermore, today’s young children are the future of our state; they are tomorrow’s engineers, doctors, community leaders and workforce. The key to Maine’s future success and prosperity is in their hands, so we must make sure they are capable ones.


Maine already faces a skills gap; the supply of skilled workers is not large enough to meet the demands of Maine industries and businesses.


The fastest growing jobs in Maine require some kind of post-secondary education, and at least a bachelor’s degree. Left unaddressed, this skills gap will only continue to grow and undermine Maine’s future economy.


I want to make sure children enter Waterville kindergarten classes ready to succeed in school and in life. The best way to make sure that happens is to provide them with high-quality early care and education opportunities.


According to the Maine Economic Growth Council’s Measure of Growth on Fourth Grade Reading Skills, the sad fact is that by fourth grade only 39 percent of our children read at or above grade level.


This is important because, until fourth grade, students are learning to read, but after that, they need to read to learn.


Research has shown that if we are serious about making sure students graduate from high school, we need to be sure they are reading at grade level by fourth-grade. To give them the best chance of doing that, we need to start when the majority of their brain architecture is being built, from birth to 5 years of age. This architecture will be structural foundation for all future emotional, intellectual and physical development.


A strong foundation allows all that follows to develop in a way that doesn’t need remediation later in life. Head Start, home visiting and quality child care services provide interactions that build healthy brain architecture and start children on a path to succeed.


It’s like a house built on a strong foundation that doesn’t require repairs to fix its roof, wiring or plumbing.


About 5 percent of the children born each year in Maine have a structural brain issue that requires special education services. In Waterville, the percentage of children entering kindergarten who need those services is 18 percent, the state average. We know something happens to disrupt healthy brain development, we know what it is and we know how to prevent it. What we need is the resolve to make it happen.


Instead of expanding our ability to reach more children with quality services, however, the Legislature’s cuts last year forced us to close two Head Start classrooms (with another to close in the fall because of sequestration), eliminate some home visiting services and eliminate some child care service for working parents.


Currently, 200 children attend Educare, with another 65 children on the waiting list. Many families do not add their names to the list because it is so long.


It was truly a penny-wise but pound-foolish decision to cut these services to children and their parents from the budget. It is imperative that this is remedied. We need our legislators and governor to restore the cuts that were made to early childhood programs and invest in the state’s future economic development now.


Karen Heck is mayor of Waterville.

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