Baby steps: High-quality preschool makes a big difference, but can Maine afford it?

On Drummond Avenue in Waterville, next to the George J. Mitchell Elementary School, sits a state-of-the-art, window-paneled building. The inside of Educare Central Maine clearly is designed for small children, with lots of small chairs and play areas surrounded by walls of artwork.

Here, about 200 mostly low-income children up to 5 years old receive some of the best care and education available. Teachers are charged with promoting healthy emotional development, helping children learn important skills and ensuring parents are heavily involved, and they have plenty of support along the way. Professional development is embedded into the workday, and independent evaluators provide feedback on how children are faring so teachers can adapt accordingly.

BDN illustration by Eric Zelz

BDN illustration by Eric Zelz

Educare is a partnership among Waterville public schools, Early Head Start and Head Start, the William and Joan Alfond Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. Director Kathryn Colfer describes it as “Head Start on steroids.”

Low-income children who participate in Educare as infants or toddlers show no achievement gap, when compared with their middle-income peers, when they enter kindergarten. It is by all accounts a model for how Maine can effectively operate early childhood programs.

It’s also an example of how far public policies for early childhood education have to go.

The Maine Legislature is considering a bill, LD 1530, sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, that aims to expand children’s access to quality child care and grow the number of public preschools. It would require school districts to offer public preschool for 4-year-olds by the 2018-19 school year, and participation by students would be voluntary.

The legislation doesn’t re-create Educare. But the state has to start somewhere when it comes to expanding quality public preschool programs, Vitelli said.

“I think the main thing is, we have to start. We have to make a commitment,” she said.

The legislative Education and Cultural Affairs Committee is working out key details. There’s no cost estimate yet, but the committee is eyeing revenue sources to fund the potential increase in the number of preschools.

One proposal would use higher-than-expected casino revenues allocated for public education to help districts launch the preschool programs. After the first year, the programs would be funded the same way as kindergarten through 12th grade, with a combination of state and local money. The state’s funding formula distributes slightly more money to districts for their younger students than their older students.

Preschool comes with an overall increased cost. But without a cost estimate, it’s impossible to know how severely the legislation would affect municipal budgets and property taxes. At the same time,study after study shows that high-quality preschool — the type that can actually reduce achievement gaps, increase college attainment rates and lead to healthier adulthood — isn’t cheap.

“We do support universal voluntary prekindergarten but want to ensure that adequate funds are appropriated to cover the cost of preschool and that those funds are not taken from existing education funds,” said Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which represents superintendents and school boards.

Regardless of the merits of greater access to preschool, “our biggest concern is just this whole pattern of the state establishing these requirements and not following through on whatever commitments were made on the front end,” added Christopher Lockwood, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association. “The municipalities and the property taxpayers end up being responsible to come up with the money to fund them.”

Early childhood education has broad support — from business leaders who want a prepared workforce, to jail administrators and police who want to prevent crime, to military members who see early education as a national security issue. The bill has the support of Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, districts already have increased substantially the number of 4-year-olds in preschool on their own, driven largely by federal stimulus money.

About 60 percent of districts now offer some type of prekindergarten, and the remaining districts could offer it; they need a funding source to make it through the initial start-up period before state money kicks in, and they need a preschool plan approved by the local school board and Maine Department of Education. Maine ranks 14th among the states for 4-year-olds’ access to preschool and 36th in terms of state funding per preschool student.

As the Legislature weighs the proposal, it has found itself in the middle of a discussion about value: Can it ensure that the quality of the preschool programs proposed for Maine are worth the investment? On average, large, public programs have been less effective than smaller, rigorous, better-funded programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. That doesn’t mean public programs are entirely ineffective or that they aren’t worth the costs. It means state programs must recognize their limitations upfront and work to overcome them.

Right now that job belongs to the Education Committee.

“I believe in pre-K with parents’ choice,” said Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who is on the committee. “But I feel if we are really going to do this, we need to meet the town’s need dollar for dollar and not go through the formula or at least have partners set up to assist them to take on this big project. Reality is that towns can already do this if it is a priority in their town, and I am not sure if we need this bill unless we want to mandate the towns to do it.”

The Department of Education, which is updating its preschool support efforts, also has questioned the need for the bill.

“The Department is committed to continuing our work on these issues, and therefore, question whether the bill is needed to direct that it be done,” it wrote in a Nov. 25, 2013, memo to the education committee.

Should the state mandate towns to expand preschool to more than 4-year-olds? One concern expressed by early childhood education specialists is that by the time children turn 4, it’s often too late for them to reap the benefits of quality child care.

“Given the direct and documented, well-researched causal relationship between poverty and child academic readiness, as well as parent involvement and child educational success, for most children in Maine, pre-K is too late,” said Sue Mackey-Andrews, an early education consultant.

Some lawmakers would like children to have the public preschool option before they reach age 4 but see money and politics as obstacles.

“If I could wave my magic wand, absolutely,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, chairwoman of the education committee.

While expanding preschool to more ages is beyond the scope of the bill, it is possible for the bill to coordinate and connect what is learned in preschool through the first several years of elementary school, Vitelli said, “so the benefits of the pre-K experience don’t get lost.”

The bill can also require schools to collaborate with child care providers already caring for infants and toddlers in their communities. It directs the Department of Education — which already has a team in place looking at how to improve preschool standards — to create a plan for phasing in universal, voluntary preschool, including how to merge with programs already in existence such as Head Start and private child care providers.

“It may be the district has the classroom space, has the bachelor’s level teacher, and Head Start brings in their assistant teacher, some curriculum materials and does some of the parent engagement and the comprehensive services,” said Jaci Holmes of the department.

“There are ways to make it work out, and I think that members of the public and existing programming need to start talking to their local school districts about, ‘What does your local plan look like?’” said Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance.

Otherwise, the concern is that public preschools for 4-year-olds inadvertently could harm licensed private child care providers, who serve more than 40,000 Maine children, and Head Start providers, who serve more than 3,700 children. That’s because serving 4- and 5-year-olds doesn’t require the same high teacher-child ratios as toddlers and infants, so they are less expensive to take care of. If they are taken out of the market, child care providers could find themselves unable to pay the bills.

The Legislature is heading in the right direction, Colfer, of Educare, said, but the state still doesn’t have a clear idea of how expanded preschool would be implemented, as much of the rulemaking would be left up to the education department. How would transportation for preschool students work? What would the teacher-student ratios be? Would there be health screenings and a way to assess whether programs are working well? Importantly, would there be a strong emphasis on keeping families at the center of child learning?

“We won’t see the details for awhile,” Furlow added. “It’s sometimes one step at a time.”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.