AUGUSTA — A bill that would set Maine on a course to expand pre-kindergarten programs into every school district won unanimous approval Monday from the Legislature’s Education Committee.

But lawmakers also agreed to give school districts more time to develop their programs, setting a deadline of the 2023-24 school year rather than the 2020-21 school year proposed in the original bill. Committee members said local educators need the extra time to find the space and staff to provide programs for 4-year-olds.

The bill itself wouldn’t provide any money for the programs. Instead, it assumes that funding for pre-K will be part of education funding within the two-year state budget proposed by the governor. This year,  the state budget proposal by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, includes $40 million to help support the expansion of pre-K into all school districts.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Tori Kornfield, D-Bangor, the education committee’s co-chairwoman, requires the state Department of Education to set standards for what would qualify as a pre-K program, which could allow some communities to satisfy the requirement with programs already in place and with federally funded Head Start programs.

Kornfield said that despite the delay in implementation, she was satisfied with the committee’s vote because it moves the state closer to a system in which all pre-K students would be receiving high-quality early childhood education.

“I wish it were sooner, but my interest is in voluntary universal pre-K,” Kornfield said. School districts will have flexibility to meet the forthcoming DOE standards with a variety of approaches, she said, and a combination of state and local funding.

“But we need a plan,” Kornfield said.

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, said the legislation creates an incentive for school districts to move forward with more pre-K programs, even if the full cost of that expansion is not covered by the state.

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, who amended the bill to extend the deadline for expansion to the 2023-2024 school year, said there’s a consensus on the committee that expanding quality early childhood education is an important cause.

Pouliot said extending the deadline gives districts “a little bit more time to make sure that they can meet this demand from a capacity perspective.”

The expansion plans also would allow parents to opt out of pre-K programs for their children, in the same way that parents can delay the start of kindergarten until the age of 6 for some children.

“I think the state is really taking a serious tack towards making sure this is a funding priority and we hope to support these efforts at the local level,” Pouliot said.

Research shows that universal pre-K helps all students, but it particularly benefits low-income children who may not have the same access as middle- and upper-income children to 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 bipartisan agreement on the merits of early education, so far Maine has no mandate for it, and only a handful of the state’s school districts offer truly universal pre-K, open to any 4-year-old in the district who wants to attend. That’s partly because it is so costly to implement and, after years of consolidation, many districts no longer have the physical space for it.

Pouliot said finding the space is part of the concern and the reason he and his Republican colleagues wanted to delay the law, but Kornfield said the change doesn’t preclude any school district from moving forward sooner.

The legislation also doesn’t prevent parents from sending their children to private pre-K or early childhood education programs, either. “There has to be choice,” Pouliot said.

But it’s unlikely that any state funding for pre-K could be applied to a private placement, and some critics of the legislation have argued the state should prioritize its pre-K efforts on lower-income students first.

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.

In 2018, 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 an estimated $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 a recent Duke University report.

Currently only three states, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia, offer universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds. But 4o states, including Maine, as well as the District of Columbia, offer some state-funded pre-K programs – usually income based.

The bill, L.D. 1043, will now face additional votes in the Legislature before it can be sent to Mills for her consideration.

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