Offering pre-kindergarten classes statewide is one of the top education priorities of the new administration of Gov. Janet Mills, despite a hefty cost in the range of $40 million per year and questions about whether all schools have the space to house that many 4-year-olds.

Education advocates who have long supported pre-K say just expanding the existing programs scattered around the state would be a big step forward.

“We are very pleased and optimistic to hear Gov. Mills talk about early childhood and pre-K, because that’s where so much brain development is happening and we can make a bigger difference by starting early,” said Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance.

There are several pre-K bills before the Legislature, among the more than 200 education bill titles submitted this legislative session. Other bills, still without text and details, would tackle education issues supported by Mills on the campaign trail, including raising base teacher pay to $40,000 a year and meeting the state’s legal obligation of funding education at 55 percent.

With a change in administrations and party leadership, there is pent-up demand to get Democratic-backed initiatives before lawmakers. There’s also a sense that the conversation will be radically different under the Mills administration.

Under Paul LePage, education was both an early policy focus for the governor, and a favorite target of his famous vitriol. He initiated controversial reform initiatives such as assigning A-F grades to schools and launching charter schools, while installing a rotation of department commissioners. He regularly attacked the state teachers union, rebuffed the Legislature’s education committee and casually criticized the state’s public schools in general. “It was very clear (Mills) has a way of respecting the professionals,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the teachers union, the Maine Education Association. “We really, really will have a voice in the education issues in the state.”

LARGE LOW-INCOME IMPACT

Universal pre-K helps all students, research shows, but it particularly benefits low-income children who may not have the same benefits of middle- and upper-income children such as language-rich environments, adequate food and medical care, and experience socializing with groups of peers. In Maine, one-third of children under the age of 6 are in low-income households.

Despite broad agreement on the merits of early education, Maine has no mandate for it and only a handful of districts offer truly universal pre-K – open to any 4-year-old in the district who wants to attend. That’s in part because it is so costly and, after years of consolidation, many districts no longer have the physical space for it.

Pre-K student Brynn Drapeau paints at the art station before the end of class at John F. Kennedy Memorial School. Nationwide, 33 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs last year.

Studies repeatedly show that children in early education programs are more likely to finish their educations, avoid the criminal justice system, hold good jobs and have stable families. A Duke University study released in 2017 found that students in North Carolina who enrolled in early education scored higher on math and literacy tests through the fifth grade compared with peers who did not have high-quality pre-K.

There are caveats. Researchers have found that public pre-K programs can vary widely, and to be effective they must be high quality and include rigorous, regular evaluations to ensure effectiveness.

Supporters also point out the economic benefits ranging from a “pay now or pay later” philosophy from law enforcement, to economists noting that pre-K programs allow caretakers to enter the job market, and in some cases, avoid paying another year of private child care.

UNIVERSAL, OR JUST FOR NEEDY?

But given its expense, there is a debate about whether to prioritize funding by serving the most needy rather than providing universal pre-K. Programs might also be half day or full day, and located in a school classroom or in an approved private day care somewhere in the district.

In the Portland school district, the pre-K program is a typical hybrid, with some spots in school-based classrooms while others are at approved day care facilities. Seventy-five percent of the available slots are reserved for low-income students.

Pre-kindergarten students store their snow clothes in their cubbies after returning to class at John F. Kennedy Memorial School. Universal pre-K helps all students, research shows, especially low-income kids.

The exact cost of providing universal pre-K has not been calculated by Maine state officials, but in 2016-2017, Maine spent $19 million to serve 5,440 children, or about 39 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. That figure doesn’t include federal funds or the local district match.

This month, Maine got more than $1 million in federal grant money to boost pre-K and early education for low- and moderate-income students.

An annual report on public pre-K nationwide found that Maine spends $3,451 in state funds for each pre-K student, lower than the national average of $5,008 per student. Once local district matching funds and other funds are added in, Maine spends $8,285 per pre-K student – seventh-highest in the nation, according to the report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Last year, Maine had 12,875 children in kindergarten. It’s unlikely all families would take advantage of a pre-K program, but if they all did, it would cost the state about $48 million a year, not including local matching funds.

Nationwide, 33 percent of America’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs last year, according to the Duke report.

Pre-K programs have expanded in Maine and nationally in recent years, although most have limited seats. Between 2012 and 2017, states increased funding for pre-K by 47 percent, according to a report by the Education Commission of the States.

The state changed the funding formula several years ago to make it easier for schools to start pre-K programs, by providing funding upfront instead of a year after the program began. Also, the Obama administration gave out more than $1 billion in grants to provide startup funds for pre-K – including grants for Maine.

MANY OTHER EDUCATION BILLS

Other noteworthy education proposals this session are bills that would ban vaping devices and student cellphone use on campus; allow school employees to carry guns; ban Native American mascots; increase funding for school-based health centers; require that students be taught cursive, financial literacy and computer science; allow later start times for high schools; limit the number of charter schools; increase the number of charter schools; and allow for a school voucher program.

One bill resurfaces Question 2 from the 2016 election – which won at the ballot box and was subsequently killed by the Legislature. The measure would add a 3 percent tax for income higher than $200,000 to meet the state’s 55 percent obligation to pay for education. Other funding bills would pay for school renovations, student load debt relief, and career and technical education centers. And still other bills address adjunct pay, free community college, and bringing back the proficiency high school diploma requirements.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine


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