As a former Maine State Economist and now president of Thomas College, my career and passions have focused on education, improving the economy, enhancing supports that strengthen Maine families, and making wise allocation of financial resources that provide a significant return on investment. Without exception, all of these challenges start with investing in our people to produce a high-quality education continuum from birth through postsecondary.

High-quality early care and education prior to kindergarten helps narrow the “achievement gap” between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers, reduces health care costs by improving lifelong health outcomes, boosts later earnings, and provides a high rate of economic return. Taking a proactive approach to cognitive and social skill development through investments in quality early childhood programs is more effective and economically efficient than trying to close the gap later in the child’s educational career. According to University of Maine professor Philip Trostel’s report specific to Maine, the rate of return for investments in high-quality early childhood development is 7 to 10 percent per annum through producing better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.

Since the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Maine Development Foundation first issued a joint Making Maine Work report in 2012, “Investment in Young Children = Real Economic Development,” there has been a growing recognition of the value of investing in quality early childhood programs. I am heartened to see the legislature take up the comprehensive, transformational, and community-based approach embraced by First4ME and that the governor’s new 10-year economic plan includes addressing the needs for high-quality early learning in both child care and preschool. It’s time to act on the evidence by making these investments. The sooner we do, the more likely we’ll be to put our state on the road to greater prosperity that is shared by all.

Maine’s public-school system is ranked in the top of the second quartile (13th in the nation) according to a 2018 Forbes report on states with the best public-school systems. There are many factors that contribute to a great public-school system: performance, safety, class size and instructor credentials, among others. Of course, funding can be crucial to improving these characteristics. Stagnant budgets have an impact on the quality of public-school education because that limitation requires schools to constantly juggle between well-compensated staff and other competing quality education costs. Ensuring Maine has a strong funding mechanism that supports all learners in reaching their potential and pursues continuing education is vital to a sustainable economy.

And this support for all learners must begin at birth. The same factors that impact the success of our public-school system impact the success of our early care and education system: safety, group size, the experience and credentials of child-care professionals, and the quality of the learning environments. And, just like public school, having a great system relies on funding. Parent fees are currently the main source of funding for early learning. Child-care directors are constantly trying to provide quality programs while both trying to avoid raising rates on families and struggling to pay teachers adequate wages. Yet, if we want a thriving economy and workforce, we need to start at the beginning. Expanded early-education funding would help achieve that goal.

This will, in turn, help us to increase the number of Mainers with postsecondary credentials of value, as children with a great start are more likely to earn a postsecondary credential.  And earning that credential is more crucial than ever. According to Educate Maine’s 2019 Education Indicators report, a high school diploma is simply no longer enough to make Maine’s workforce competitive in the global market. To meet future job demands, at least 60 percent of Mainers should have a postsecondary credential of value by 2025. That figure currently stands at only 45 percent.

The benefit of investing in a high-quality education continuum, from birth through postsecondary, will benefit all of Maine’s people by ensuring the development of a skilled and innovative workforce that will propel Maine into a prosperous future.

Laurie Lachance is president of Thomas College.

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