Seacoast Online: Universal pre-K worth the cost

Posted: December 11, 2013 | News Items, Senator Vitelli

By Ron McAllister

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Seven months ago (May 9, 2013) a legislative hearing in Augusta considered the idea of universal pre-kindergarten for all Maine 4-year-olds. The bill was presented by Senator Seth Goodall who left the state legislature shortly thereafter. Senator Eloise Vitelli replaced Goodall after winning a special election in August.

Some wondered what would become of Goodall’s pre-K proposal. Wonder no more: it lives. At the end of November, Vitelli filed a bill to extend early childhood education to every school district in Maine. Under the proposed law (L.D. 1530) by the 2017-2018 school year every school administrative unit in Maine would be required to provide public preschool programs for every 4-year-old child living in their districts.

There has been considerable talk in recent years about mandatory pre-K education and not just in Maine. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a massive expansion of early childhood education programs. According to The Washington Post (Feb. 14, 2013) Obama wants Early Head Start to extend its early education, child care, parental education and health services to vulnerable children from birth to three years of age.

Compulsory pre-K is supported by a wide range of interest groups. Last spring’s hearing in Augusta showed the diversity of organizations advocating it. These included education groups (e.g., the Maine Principals’ Association), a public charity (e.g., United Way) and law enforcement (e.g., Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Maine). The Maine Department of Education also weighed in on the issue, noting how much had already been achieved to further the goals of the proposed legislation. At the same time, the DOE went on record saying that the department was “neither for nor against” Goodall’s bill.

The ambivalence of the state’s education department was echoed in testimony given by Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association (MSMA). The MSMA supported Goodall’s bill but also criticized it for not saying enough about funding. “A universal pre-kindergarten program,” Brown said, “will come with a substantial price tag.” Cost is certainly the major challenge but a more important question is whether the benefits would outweigh the costs.

Police chiefs around the country support mandatory pre-kindergarten. This emerged in testimony by Mark Westrum, administrator of the Regional Correctional Authority in Wiscasset. His remarks drew upon a study of centers which have provided school readiness programs to 100,000 preschoolers in Chicago over a 30-year period. The study concluded that kids left out of the programs were more likely to be held back in school, more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate and more likely to turn to crime.

A bipartisan research study published in July by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research revealed that the majority of Americans support expansion of children’s access to high quality preschool funded by the federal government. Respondents rated ensuring children get a good start in life (86 percent) as more important than securing our borders (63 percent); more important than reducing the tax burden on families (73 percent); more important than improving the quality of public schools (85 percent). Only increasing jobs and economic growth (92 percent) was rated higher than ensuring children a strong start in life. The same report also found that support for expanded pre-K cuts across party lines, although more Democrats (84 percent) than Republicans (60 percent) say they support it.

Yes, it would be costly to provide pre-K to all Maine 4-year-old but many kids are in child care now — by some estimates at least 40,000, usually paid for by their families. Some of these kids are in preschool because their parents work but what if parents can’t work? What if their jobs don’t earn enough to pay for child care? Should their children be denied access to preschool?

Few parents would refuse their 4-year-old child a stimulating, high quality educational experience if they could afford it. Every parent knows that the earlier habits of learning are established, the better. They also know that how you begin your life’s journey can determine where and how you end it; in wealth or in poverty. The level of poverty and the widening economic inequality in Maine are reasons enough to support universal pre-K which offers a potential course correction.

Expensive? Sure it’s expensive, but consider the societal benefits of developing the talent of every child. Then consider the societal costs of not developing them.

Ron McAllister is a sociologist and writer who lives in York.