January 25

OUR OPINION: Maine would benefit from expanded pre-kindergarten programs

A bill now before the Legislature would finance the instruction using casino revenue.

There is little doubt about the potential of pre-kindergarten instruction. Children are ready to learn developmentally appropriate lessons before many of them now formally start school, and pre-kindergarten classes, when executed correctly, can improve the cognitive, social and emotional capabilities of young students.

In these settings, in addition to math and language arts, they learn how to solve problems when presented with barriers, how to interact with others, and how to work together and negotiate through conflicts. These skills give the students a leg up as they enter kindergarten, and those advantages persist, to one degree or another, through the rest of their education.

In addition, early education can be an alternative to later intervention. Our schools have many programs for helping out students who fall behind in later grades, but the job is much more difficult by that time, and much more expensive. Early intervention also can keep students from one day entering the criminal justice system.

Pre-kindergarten instruction, at least as formally presented in public schools, is still a relatively new phenomenon. According to The Pew Center on the States, access to pre-K grew from 700,000 children in 2001 to more than 1 million in 2011. In Maine, 4,908 children are now in public pre-K programs, compared to just 895 in 2003-04. As of 2012, only nine states, plus Washington, D.C., offered pre-K to all public school students.

Maine will join that list if lawmakers pass L.D. 1530, which on Tuesday was approved by a 10-2 vote of the Legislature’s Education Committee. The bill calls for using $1 million of revenue from Oxford Casino to establish voluntary pre-kindergarten instruction in all Maine school systems by fall 2017.

Maine is already ahead of most states — about 60 percent of schools here offer some sort of pre-kindergarten, and many other parents opt for private instruction of some kind.

Universal pre-kindergarten, however, would guarantee that the programs reach low-income students, who research suggests benefit the most from early education.

The challenge for Maine schools will be implementing pre-K programs that are measurably effective. That will take an investment in teacher training specific to the youngest students, as well as the use of accurate assessment tools for student performance.

The pre-K programs also have to be integrated into the K-12 education structure now in place. It is crucial that the gains of early education are not lost at the subsequent grade levels, as some research suggests is the case now. It does no good to invest in pre-kindergarten if the advantages disappear by middle school.

Under L.D. 1530, a stakeholder group would be charged with establishing statewide standards and making sure best practices were followed.

Maine has found it difficult in the past to spread the successes of individual schools across the state. But the existence of a statewide panel to push for improvement is assuring, and the promise of pre-kindergarten makes it worth the effort.

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