Investing Early Pays Off

Posted: December 09, 2013 | Education and Cultural Affairs, Senator Vitelli

Special Submission to the Times Record

Early in my career, I served as a Head Start teacher in the Midcoast and saw firsthand the benefits of early education.

A quality early education is the best foundation for children to succeed in school, and in life. The benefits are undeniable, from greater academic success to increased economic productivity; yet, only 60 percent of school districts in Maine offer some form of pre-K, and less than one-third of four year-olds are enrolled in a pre-Kindergarten program. While pre-K may not be for every family or every child, no one should be excluded from this important opportunity because of a lack of access.

To help achieve equal access to quality, early education for more Maine children, I am spearheading an effort started by my predecessor, Seth Goodall, to increase access to pre-Kindergarten programs. The measure will provide a framework for all school districts in Maine to implement voluntary pre-K by the 2017-2018 school year.

Lawmakers, parents, and educators aren’t the only ones committed to early education. At a recent hearing before the Education Committee, experts in a variety of fields from brain science to law enforcement all spoke about the importance of early childhood education and the benefits of pre-K.

Dr. Judy Cameron is a neuroscientist from the University of Pittsburgh. She explained that from birth to age five, children experience the highest growth in sensory, language and cognitive functions. Because the ability to change behavior decreases over time, it is crucial that we invest early to ensure that our children have the best opportunity to maximize their potential. By not providing quality early education, we are missing out on a critical window of opportunity in a child’s life.

Investing in early education is also good for our economy. Every dollar spent on early childhood education yields $4 to $16 in benefits. And in the long run, investing in early education will save money. A recent report from a nonprofit national security organization found that high quality pre-K programs produce net savings of $15,000 for every child enrolled. In fact, according to the analysis, Maine could save $500 million over a ten-year period by offering pre-K in every school district.

Universal pre-K may cost money initially, but as Mark Westrum the former Sagadahoc Sheriff and current administrator at Two Rivers Jail explained, we are already spending that money, we are just spending it at the other end: on prisons, public assistance, remedial education, and other social costs. In a recent national survey of police chiefs, over 80% ranked investing in early childhood education as the top strategy for reducing crime.

While the savings are significant, the lifelong benefits of early education are incredible.

According to the University of Southern Maine professor Phillip Trostel, early childhood education leads to a measurable increase in academic achievement, educational attainment, employment and health.

And we know early education works–we’ve seen it right here in our community. C.H.O.I.C.E.S. — a partnership between Regional School Unit 1 and local community providers — offers access to quality, developmentally appropriate preschool programs to all 4-year-olds in the community. Since 2006, this public private partnership has had a dynamic impact on our community. About 80 percent of fouryear olds are enrolled, and they are exceeding expectations. A February 2012 assessment found that C.H.O.I.C.E.S. students performed at or above expectations in every category.

We now have a choice. We can continue spending millions of dollars on our prisons, or we can invest that money in our preschools for an even greater benefit. As Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce has said, we can pay for quality early education, or we can pay more for the costs of crime in the decades to come.

We can do better, and we must do better. Investing in quality early education is an investment in our state’s future and our children’s future. We are stronger as a community and a state when we give every child a greater opportunity to succeed.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in Augusta to provide universal, voluntary pre-K in all school districts in Maine.